The late Rodney Pratt had the right credentials to be a constable – his job history included serving court papers, recovering fugitives, and providing security for institutions under potential threat.
But when Pratt, a Democrat who sat on the Board of Representatives, including as majority leader, sought his party’s nomination to run for constable in 2017, he didn’t get it.
The Democratic Party endorsed its incumbents to continue as constables who, in Stamford, earn money serving legal documents.
Pratt told The Stamford Advocate at the time that the re-nominations were political favors, and treating the constable job as “a gift” does “a disservice to the community.” Serving people eviction notices and child-support claims can spark volatile situations, said Pratt, who believed an important constable duty is to keep the peace.
He forced a primary and went on to be elected constable. He was 68 when he died last month of cancer.
This month Pratt’s friend and fellow city representative, Jeff Stella, sought the Democratic Party nomination to serve the remainder of Pratt’s constable term.
Like Pratt, Stella didn’t get the nomination. Like Pratt, Stella has good credentials for serving as constable – he was a New York City police officer for nearly 25 years.
And, like Pratt, Stella has high expectations for the job of constable.
“It was hard to lose Rodney. He was my unofficial partner. He would have made a great cop; all we needed was to be in a police car,” Stella said. “When he passed away, I felt like he passed this torch to me – we had the same ideas about constables.”
Unlike Pratt, Stella, for now, will not pursue a constable’s seat.
“I am withdrawing my name so as not to create unnecessary tension on the 31st Board of Representatives, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I want to see the system changed,” Stella said. “We need a better system for the next generation of constables.”
He wants to “elevate it to a different level,” Stella said.
“The idea that a person can get knighted by the Democratic City Committee, or the Board of Representatives, and do this work without background checks or experience is a problem,” he said. “This job has a history of people being selected because their political party likes them. But there should be training and oversight.”
Some constables carry guns, he said, but there is no requirement that they keep up their skills at a firing range. Some have no experience dealing with people who react badly when they are served with a lawsuit notice, divorce filing, wage garnishment, tax warrant, or other process, he said.
“I think they need training in de-escalation, self-defense, and diversity,” Stella said.
Constables are paid by courts, law firms, landlords, businesses and others who need papers to be served, but they can take or reject whatever jobs they choose.
“What happens when they don’t really take much work, or when they do the job badly? Who do they answer to?” Stella asked.
It’s unclear, said Lyda Ruijter, Stamford town clerk. There’s no job manual for constables, and it appears that they don’t report to anyone, Ruijter said.
“People have asked me about it and we’ve looked, but we haven’t found anything that governs it,” Ruijter said. “It appears to be one of those elected offices, like town clerk, where state statutes are overruled by the city Charter, and they’re just kind of left out.”
State law says there are two types of constables, elected and appointed. Usually appointed constables have law enforcement functions and elected constables serve papers. But not always, according to the statutes. Towns have ordinances that make elected constables law enforcement officials, usually after some police training.
The city Charter says just that Stamford elects seven constables who serve four-year terms.
Odded Mizrachi, director of operations at Mark Sank & Associates in Stamford, said that law firm no longer hires constables.
“We use state marshals pretty much for everything,” Mizrachi said. “With constables, if there is a problem with how they conduct themselves, I don’t know of a formal way to file a complaint. Marshals have the State Marshal Commission, so there is a process.”
According to its website, the State Marshal Commission is a branch of the Department of Administrative Services. The commission sets training requirements, professional standards, audit policies, disciplinary protocol, and more for the marshal system.
Mizrachi said there’s another reason his firm uses marshals. It’s that constables can serve papers only in the town in which they were elected.
“A marshal serves a whole county, so a marshal has greater range,” Mizrachi said. “There are many times when we need to serve in other towns.”
Range is the only difference between what constables can do and what state marshals can do, said Brian Mezick, president of the State Marshals Association.
But how they do it is vastly different.
Marshals, who are appointed by the State Marshal Commission, must take an exam and score 80 points or more; must be fingerprinted; and must pass an FBI criminal background check and credit check, Mezick said. They get 40 hours of classroom training and 80 hours of on-the-road training, he said, and they are required to carry a certain amount of insurance.
“I might have a permit to carry a firearm, but as a marshal I can’t unless I get permission from the commission, pass a psych exam, and get training every year where I qualify at the range. I also have to carry extra insurance,” Mezick said.
Things occasionally get violent during evictions and foreclosures, he said. If someone has a complaint with how a marshal handled something, the person can contact the State Marshal Commission, he said.
Though constables have the same powers as state marshals – provided they exercise them within town borders – there is no entity that disciplines constables.
It may be, in Stamford at least, that constables get a good deal of work from Probate Courts, which mostly handle the administration of wills, trusts and estates.
A clerk at Stamford Probate Court said they nearly always use constables, in Stamford and in other towns when they serve papers there.