Small Town Cops: NET Documentary Captures Changes in Rural Law Enforcement

July 11, 2019, 5:30 p.m. ·

Small Town Cops: An NET News Documentary

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It’s common to hear about the worst abuses in law enforcement and just a common to hear about their heroics. It’s not often you get a chance to see what life is like on the beat in some of the smallest police departments.

Tonight, NET Television will premier an hour long documentary, Small Town Cops, that gives you a chance to ride along and see what it’s like for Nebraska sheriff deputies and police officers. Jack Williams spoke with Bill Kelly, the producer of the program.

Jack Williams (NET News): Bill, you've spent a lot of time with law enforcement officers in small towns across Nebraska over the past year, why did you think this particular topic deserves more attention?

Bill Kelly (NET News, Senior Producer): I think there's a tendency for those of us in the news media and maybe especially these days for everyone on social media, to concentrate on the extremes. You see some police abuse on a cell phone video, or what's perceived as that.

On the other hand, you also see a lot of a lot of heroics, and a lot of support. What people miss are those moments in the middle. That's what we wanted to concentrate on. What is a routine law enforcement presence like in small town America? We don't see very much of that exposed in rural sheriff's offices and in rural communities, some of them with very small police departments.

Williams: You found that rural law enforcement has really improved over the past few decades, what has been the biggest change,

Kelly: I will say improvement is kind of a relative term, but I think the big change is in training. In that way, it probably has been an improvement in standards. Small town officers and rural sheriff deputies must now meet the same basic criteria as any big city officer or state trooper.

We talked to a number of older police officials who had the car keys thrown to them (and) had a gun pushed across the desk and 'there you go, that's your training.' That isn't the case anymore. By state law in the late 1970s, everyone has to meet the same standards. That evolves over time, but there's a certain level that they have to meet these days. And that's been a big change and a big jump and professionalism.

Williams: Was there a point in most of these small towns that law enforcement realized they kind of had to grow up a bit and be ready for some of the same problems we see in larger communities? Part B to that question: was that a difficult thing for some of these kinds of idyllic communities come to grips with

NET Videographer Justin Cheney with Mitchell Police Chief Mike Cotant

Jefferson County Sheriff Chief Deputy Matt Schultz

Officer Mandy Murphy and Chief Cotant in Mitchell

An NET drone with camera pursues a Mitchell P.D. patrol car. (Photos: NET News)

Jefferson Co. and Fairbury Police (Photo: Fairbury TV)

Kelly: Second part, first? Yes, it's it has been a difficult transition. In some cases. I think that tipping point moment, for an awful lot of them was Columbine. As these mass shootings, and especially the school shootings, have unfolded, it's interesting to note that almost a third of them occur in smaller communities, suburban communities, and rural communities. And there's a recognition that you have to prepare for that stuff, not only with the equipment but in mindset and a recognition that you may be an officer alone heading into that situation.

The training has changed. The attitude has changed. And then there are things like training for domestic abuse, for more sophisticated drug crimes, and even hate crimes. All of those have been factors for small departments at various times.

Williams: What are the biggest differences between what cops do in the small towns you visited compared to some of the big cities

Kelly: I think on the good side, what you hear most often is people know the community. And the officers are able to walk up to most everybody. One officer even brags, "I can, I can walk up and talk to the guy threw in jail six months ago and still say hi." So there's a tighter, more cohesive community.

The downside is the isolation. If you are alone on a dark country road, and all on your own, that's a really daunting difference between what you encounter in Lincoln and Omaha, your backup in rural Nebraska is maybe 30 minutes away before they get to you and can help bail you out.

Williams: Are the responsibilities different though or is it pretty much the same in a big town versus a small town?

Kelly: I'd say there's less emphasis on specialization in small-town police agencies. In a department like Omaha or Lincoln, you have specific crime scene investigators. You have specialists in domestic violence issues and the like. In a small town department you're doing it all to some degree. You get assistance from the Nebraska State Patrol and their crime lab and the like. But initially, you're the expert in everything that a specific situation presents to you.

Williams: Did anything surprise you? You visited quite a few small towns in Nebraska where you were shocked by anything you saw there?

Kelly: I would say know that there weren't any shocks. We didn't have a homicide unfold during any of our visits. I was actually really glad for that. We weren't necessarily interested in the extremes. We wanted to concentrate on those day-to-day duties… everything from animal control to helping find a missing person…. all of that type of thing. We hopefully did a successful job of capturing what the day to day life is for small-town police officers.

Williams: Did you come away feeling pretty good about small-town law enforcement in Nebraska?

Kelly: I think that's the case anytime you're exposed to any profession, and you have an opportunity to look at it a little more closely. Yeah, you get some additional understanding, and I hope that comes across to the audience as well.

Williams: Bill Kelly. His new documentary Small Town Cops premieres tonight at eight central on NET TV. Bill, thanks for your time today.