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Showdown in Seward: Sheriff’s decision to halt I-80 drug stops spurs controversy

September 24, 2018

Sheriff’s deputies in the rural, low-crime county just west of Lincoln have become known for their successes in intercepting heroin, methamphetamine and drug money being trafficked along Interstate 80. Two years ago, they arrested a lieutenant of the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel.

But in May, Seward County Sheriff Joe Yocum put that work on ice, just as his re-election campaign was taking off.

Yocum’s challenger in the race: one of his own deputies, whose drug-interdiction work has garnered recognition from a national law enforcement association.

Sgt. Mike Vance, who announced in February that he would run against his incumbent boss, says the sheriff is trying to keep his challenger from making headlines.

“This is political, and I know it, but I’ll do what I have to do until the election,” Vance said.

But Yocum disputes that characterization, and said a combination of citizen complaints about the interdiction traffic stops, the need for written policies and a shortage of deputies prompted him to suspend the highway interdiction program he started.

“They just can’t go out and sit on the interstate for hours and hours,” Yocum said. “We don’t have the staffing to be able to do that.”

Sheriff’s elections have drawn controversy before in the county of roughly 17,000.

After Yocum won re-election in 2010, two former deputies who had supported his opponent sued Yocum, alleging he fired them because of their political preferences in that election.

Vance offered a sworn statement in support of Yocum in that federal lawsuit, which a judge ultimately dismissed because of insufficient evidence that Yocum had retaliated against the deputies.

As this election heats up, the interdiction program has been a point of contention between the two candidates.

Yocum, who is seeking his sixth term, has been criticized for not being a full-time sheriff while Vance works to prove he has the executive experience.

“What I’m hearing from citizens around the county is that they like what they’ve seen in the last four to eight years,” Yocum said.

Sheriff since 1999, Yocum said he’s led the charge in modernizing the department, in part by launching the criminal interdiction program that has allowed his office to spend a portion of the confiscated drug money on new equipment and training.

On top of his sheriff’s duties, Yocum has served on the county’s safety committee and personnel board, been involved in the state’s sheriff’s association, worked on getting the Nebraska Law Enforcement Memorial dedicated and launched a cold-case investigation of the killings of Boone County lawmen in 1937.

But his teaching at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Southeast Community College and Seward High School has drawn criticism from Vance.

“He just hasn’t been around enough,” Vance said of his boss.

Yocum countered that his teaching duties take just 10 hours a week and provide him an opportunity to recruit for the sheriff’s office. He’s hired former students from his class, he said.

Yocum estimated he logs at least 50 hours a week for the sheriff’s office.

“I’m a working sheriff,” he said, adding he often picks up patrol shifts and works holidays so his staff doesn’t have to.

He often talks with constituents at his Milford home, he said, and recently spent two hours talking down a man who wanted to kill the driver who fatally injured his relative in a crash.

“I avail myself to the public whenever they call me,” Yocum said.

If elected sheriff, Vance said he would devote his time solely to the sheriff’s job.

He’d ensure he and his chief deputy would take calls for service and keep them from stacking up in the dispatch queue, he said. And people would know the names of Seward County deputies.

A law enforcement officer since 1987, Vance spent much of his career in Tennessee before being hired to serve as the Santee Police Chief in 2003. Yocum hired him as a Seward County deputy in 2006, and he has most recently served as a training sergeant.

An ideological conservative, Vance elected to seek the office as a Democrat so he wouldn’t have to run against Yocum in the primary and would have more time to spread his name, he said.

Vance has twice been recognized by the National Criminal Enforcement Association as one of the top six drug interdiction officers in the U.S. and Canada, he said.

Lately, he hasn’t patrolled much but instead is working as court security, doing prisoner transports and writing policies and procedures for the interdiction program, Vance said.

Like Yocum, Vance noted how the seized drug money has helped the department financially.

“It’s a resource that we’re not using,” Vance said.

But Yocum said interdiction work isn’t Vance’s full-time duty, and the sheriff’s office isn’t losing money by suspending the program because seized funds aren’t part of its official budget.

Deputies can still investigate if they suspect there are drugs in a vehicle they’ve stopped, Yocum said, but he hasn’t been able to spare staff hours for the supplemental program since July.

The sheriff said he’s reviewing the draft procedures for interdiction work, which the county attorney’s office requested to meet liability concerns. Once those are ready, he’ll send them to the county attorney’s office for final approval.

Then — and only if the office’s staffing situation has improved — will highway interdiction resume, Yocum said.

Vance doubts it will any time soon.

“I’ve redone them (the procedures) three times, and we’re still not back out on the interstate,” the sergeant said.

The Utica resident said he’s new to politics, describing the race as a culture shock.

At campaign events, Vance makes clear this race isn’t personal: “I’m not here to bash Sheriff Yocum. I’m here to answer your questions and tell you the difference between the two of us,” Vance said he tells voters.

Come Nov. 6, Election Day, Yocum has one question for voters in the county.

“I would ask, ‘When have I not delivered?’” Yocum said.

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