AP NEWS

Law enforcement agencies in Nebraska face personnel shortage

May 5, 2019

KEARNEY, Neb. (AP) — Six years ago, the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center in Grand Island reached maximum capacity for students training to be police officers.

The NLETC has three 15-week academies each year, and they had to place a limit of 50 students per academy. They would typically certify 140 officers a year, but now it is closer to 110-120 officers, said Brenda Urbanek, director of NLETC.

“I’ve been here at the academy almost 30 years training. It really goes in ebbs and flows. There have been times we have been overbooked, needing to get people in, and there have been some slower times,” she said to the Kearney Hub.

Buffalo County Sheriff Neil Miller noted that finding new officers is an issue every law enforcement agency in the state is facing currently.

“There are not the applicants we’ve had in the past. I can remember when we had 75 applicants for one job. Now if you can get a dozen people that are qualified for the position, you are doing well. It’s become very difficult,” Miller said.

Finding and retaining law enforcement officers have become challenges for departments across the state, and rural departments are searching for ways to make the job more attractive to potential applicants.

Kearney County Sheriff Scott White approached the Kearney County Board of Supervisors at their Feb. 5 meeting about the sheriff’s department being short two deputies and potentially losing a third. White asked the board to review health insurance premiums. He asked if Kearney County could pay a portion of the employee/spouse or children and employee/family premiums in an effort to keep officers employed with Kearney County. The county previously had paid only for the employee’s insurance. At the March 5 board of supervisors meeting, the board agreed to pay 60% of the dependent health insurance for sheriff’s department employees by July 1 to help in hiring and retaining qualified employees.

The issue of retention is one the Franklin Police Department has struggled with for some time.

Franklin’s Chief of Police Caleb Chvala reported that there have been eight or nine different officers in the small town in the past seven years. Chvala worked as a police officer in Bellevue for seven years before he entered the private sector. He worked part time in Franklin in order to retain his officer certification. When the department experienced more turnover in December, they were left with no one on the police department. Chvala took on the role of chief of police in January. He was the only full-time officer on the job until March when he was able to promote a part-time officer to a full-time position.

Holdrege Police Chief Dennis DaMoude said his department hasn’t experienced the turnover like some others in the area, but when there is a job opening it can be a struggle to find qualified candidates. At one point, it took him an entire year to get one position filled. He’s also hired people who didn’t make it through training, and he had to start the process all over again. Not having a full force can put a strain on the officers on staff as well, DaMoude said.

Chvala listed a variety of factors that may deter people from becoming police officers, including the stress of the job and not feeling supported in their work environment, Chvala said.

“They need resources to do the job and feel they are supported if something goes sideways. That’s all that is needed to get qualified people. If you don’t provide them, you are going to be stuck,” he said.

The national media and social media also may play roles in officers leaving the force.

“A lot of people get their news from social media. It does not fail, wherever there is a big incident or big issue,” he said. “It’s a lot of jumping to conclusions for a story that is going to satisfy viewers. It’s almost like entertainment rather than news.”

DaMoude agreed that the national media has portrayed law enforcement in a negative light.

“Obviously, some officers have given us a black eye,” DaMoude said. “Not every cop is bad. Not every cop wakes up every morning wanting to go out to hurt somebody and beat somebody.”

Working as a law enforcement officer also can put a strain on one’s personal life. Chvala notes that the private sector often provides better hours, better benefits and a better family life compared to working for the police force.

The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t had turnover in the past two years, but Sheriff Jerry Archer understands the struggle to find employees. Along with the long hours, working nights and weekends, Archer said rural communities also aren’t able to pay officers as much as urban communities due to the smaller tax base in our communities.

Benefits and insurance are other hurdles law enforcement departments must clear in order to attract new officers and keep the current ones.

Miller approached the Buffalo County Board of Supervisors a couple of years ago about how they were losing employees because of health insurance costs. They were able to provide better benefits, and it has helped, Miller said.

“This day and age you have to be competitive,” he said.

Officers who already have gone through training and are certified are in high demand. Miller said these officers are being poached by larger agencies, such as Omaha, who did a hiring campaign to attract certified officers.

“They took a lot of officers from other parts of the state,” Miller said. “Law enforcement is like nurses; they are in short supply and you have to pay to get them.”

Background checks and qualifying to become a law enforcement officer can be an extensive process, but area departments are finding ways to attract new officers and keep the ones who already are employed.

Like Kearney and Buffalo counties, departments are approaching their city or county boards in order to provide better insurance coverage for their employees and their families. As a larger county in Central Nebraska, Buffalo County is able to offer higher pay than more rural communities.

“We are able to pay more than a lot of them. That helps to retain and attract people,” Miller said. “We’ve got good equipment. We have take-home cars. We spend a lot of money training our officers. It just ends up that sometimes we are very lucky to have the people that we do.”

DaMoude admits that the Holdrege Police Department can’t compete with the salary of the city of Kearney or Buffalo County, but they can compete with smaller departments. HPD pays 100% of the premiums for health insurance of their employees, and DaMoude said they provide a competitive vacation, holiday and sick leave package.

Officers from area departments will attend career fairs at colleges and high schools to recruit potential law enforcement officers.

Buffalo County has an intern program at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Holdrege has had high school students from Loomis, Southern Valley and Holdrege participate in ride-alongs to get a taste of police work. HPD also sends out notices of job openings to community colleges in Nebraska, Wyoming and Kansas.

For Chvala, it’s important to provide an environment filled with trust and the resources officers need. He also insists people need to do their research and understand what it means to be a cop before they apply.

″(For) young people, make sure there isn’t something else you want to do. If someone is passionate about it, do an internship, volunteer,” Chvala said. “You need to have life experience to understand the people - where they are coming from - that you are dealing with, and moving forward, you have to understand the pressures. They are intense. You don’t want to put yourself in a position where you are going to be messed up psychologically or physically.”

Harlan County Sheriff Chris Becker admits being a law enforcement officer isn’t a job for just anyone, but it can provide a rewarding career.

“It’s kind of like the new slogan for Nebraska: It’s not for everyone. It does take a special person with patience and caring and all that good stuff to do this,” Becker said.

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Information from: Kearney Hub, http://www.kearneyhub.com/