Filling Law Enforcement Positions Can be a Challenge

July 23, 2021, 6:45 a.m. ·

Sheridan County Sheriff Jeff Brewer
Sheridan County Sheriff Jeff Brewer on patrol. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Enforcing the law in Nebraska requires plenty of people, but in Sheridan County there’s a shortage of those who want to do that job.

A little after 5 p.m. on a recent weekday evening, Sheridan County Sheriff Jeff Brewer is cruising the highways of this northwest Nebraska county.

“Pretty much once I get in this vehicle, I’ll stop for coffee, whatever," he says. "But I’m pretty much on the move from that time on."

For most of the next nine hours, Brewer drives around, patrolling and responding to a couple of calls to help transport people who got stranded.

From the county seat of Rushville, he drives north to Whiteclay, west to Hay Springs, east to Clinton and Gordon. Those are the incorporated towns, but there’s a lot more territory in the county, which stretches almost 40 miles from east to west and 70 miles north to south, from the South Dakota border down to Highway Two through the Sandhills.

“We should do a lot more patrolling south of here and get down on Highway 2 and stuff," Brewer said. "But the problem is we are so shorthanded right now, if you have an emergency call, which is – this is where most of the emergency calls in this part of the county on Highway 20 and north – where most of them come in. You’ve got to get there and you can’t do it (from) 70 miles away."

The Sheridan County Sheriff's office should have six deputies, Brewer said, but, right now, there is just two.

Two resigned earlier this year, one is injured, and one is in training. And the shortage of personnel in Sheridan County is hardly unique, said Brenda Urbanek, director of the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center in Grand Island, who adds she’s in practically daily contact with administrators from law enforcement agencies across the state.

“Recently, the overwhelming majority of them indicate that they are not fully staffed, and they are struggling to get qualified people to apply,” Urbanek said.

The training center’s website currently lists about 75 openings, which Urbanek said is about twice what the number would have been in recent years. She says there are about 4,000 active officers in the state, and while 75 opening may not sound like a lot, not all are listed on the website. For departments that, for example, are authorized 8 officers but have only four, the impact can be tremendous, she said.

Part of the problem, Brewer said, is the pay, which in Sheridan County starts at $18 per hour.

Sen. Steve Lathrop, who chairs the Judiciary Committee of the Nebraska Legislature, agrees that’s a problem – and not just in Sheridan County.

“What we’re finding is, government entities want to pay $18 an hour to hire a law enforcement person," Lathrop said. "And it is a profession that involves risk. People put their life on the line, and somebody can make $18 an hour working at the Walmart."

But Brewer said he’s limited in what he can pay because of the source of revenue in Sheridan County.

“Property tax is so high that the people in your communities are just beat down," he said. "And so I can’t pay 24 bucks an hour like Colfax County is (for) starting wages. I can’t do it.”

It's not that pay in Colfax County, in eastern Nebraska, is extraordinarily high, Brewer said, but that he lost a deputy to that county recently.

Polk County Sheriff Dwaine Ladwig, president of the Nebraska Sheriffs’ Association, said pay for deputies in other counties can range up to $30 per hour or more but shortages still persist. Ladwig faults other factors, including negative media coverage.

General social attitudes toward law enforcement, stemming from highly publicized cases like the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, also are a factor, Brewer said.

“Part of it’s the times we’re in right now," he said. "I mean, I can’t imagine being a young guy going: ‘I want to go into a field that you’re going to get persecuted, prosecuted for doing what you think you’re doing right.'"

Last summer, after Floyd’s death and the demonstrations it sparked, Lathrop’s Judiciary Committee held listening sessions in Lincoln and Omaha where Nebraskans voiced their frustration at mistreatment by police. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed LB 51, a bill requiring earlier training before someone can act as a full-fledged law enforcement officer and more continuing education.

Lathrop said the idea is to increase the overall level of professionalism in law enforcement.

“We have a lot of wonderful men and women that are in law enforcement who do a great job and are perfect professionals," Lathrop said. "But the idea of having the training and the continuing education should give people some measure of confidence, in going into the profession, that it is regarded as worthy of the investment we’re making in the training requirements."

Brewer said he’s worried the training requirements will force law enforcement agencies to spend too much money on a new officer before the agencies know whether the job is right for them.

“Out here we don’t have – we never had – that big an applicant base to start out with," Brewer said.

"What happens the first time they run into a dead body, a child molestation case, one of them things that makes you want to puke inside, and he goes – and it’s happened to me hundreds of times because I’ve been doing this for damn near 40 years now – he goes ‘This is not for me,” Brewer asks.

Lathrop said the training requirements will help both law enforcement agencies and individuals decide if an applicant is a good fit for the job.

“That training that’s required up front in my judgment is not onerous," Lathrop said. "I think if someone’s going to have the authority that comes with being a law enforcement officer, that they need to have a basic amount of training, which they will have, and then work under the supervision of an experienced officer.”

The training center’s Urbanek said it’s not yet clear what effect the new requirements in LB51 will have.

“There are some changes which will impact law enforcement agencies and the way they do business," she said. "To what extent, I think we’ll just have to wait and see the impact that it has."

The new requirements take effect in late August.

To watch a Nebraska Public Media News documentary, "Small Town Cops," click below.