We used to joke about the Nebraska State Troopers, the guys in the funny hats. But we came to learn they were people who were generally fair and honest and to be respected. I never had a bad encounter with a trooper, and I met a few because of my lead foot on the gas pedal, and many more working accidents and incidents as a member of the media.
Sadly, something has changed and that culture of respect has somehow deteriorated, apparently from the top down. Governor Pete Ricketts fired the man in charge, Col. Brad Rice, following an investigation into the handling of several cases in which upper management apparently interfered in the reporting of several incidents, one resulting in the death of a person being pursued. Several other officers were suspended.
Ricketts’ Chief Human Resources Officer Jason Jackson led the investigation and delivered a report to his boss that was critical of Rice and other top officers for the way they handled two incidents in the Panhandle troop area. One resulted in the death of a driver who was fleeing arrest when his car was tagged by the trooper’s cruiser in an approved maneuver. The other was a blow to the head of an intoxicated motorist from the butt of a trooper’s rifle.
In both cases, Jackson found that the Patrol’s narrative on the incidents was changed after the fact. In the case of the fatality, the changed version was in direct conflict with the trooper’s version, yet both were presented to a grand jury. In the rifle incident, the offending trooper was allowed to resign.
One of Jackson’s findings was that Col. Rice was “unduly familiar” with the head of the State Troopers Association of Nebraska, the patrol’s bargaining unit. To that end, Patrol Sgt. Brian Petersen, president of the union, said the union supported Rice’s firing and had sought to highlight problems within the agency prior to the governor's report.
Concerns were expressed in a survey of troopers several months ago, Petersen said. About 56 percent of respondents said they had “confidence” in their local troop leadership (there are six troop areas), but that figure dropped to 36 percent when asked about administration at headquarters. Only 18.75 percent said they believed that the administration had their best interest as an employee. Some troopers said they feared retaliation from top brass.
Equally troubling was the fact that only 47 percent of those surveyed said they would recommend employment at the State Patrol to others. Several troopers added comments to the survey about a lack of manpower, saying the agency was more concerned with budget cuts than adequate staffing.
The authorized strength for the patrol is 482, which is 43 fewer officers than 13 years ago. The union told lawmakers a year ago that they needed at least 90 more officers.
So, what happened to cause this culture shift? Some troopers responded in the survey that they felt they were under pressure to write tickets just to meet quotas. I learned that scenario nearly 50 years ago in a criminal justice class. The beat officer has to keep the sergeant happy because the sergeant has to keep the lieutenant happy and the lieutenant has to keep … you get the idea. That obligation to please superiors isn’t unique to the patrol, but can be exacerbated in a paramilitary organization such as the patrol.
Such organizations can also trip over their own hierarchy, especially if a few of those “top” people have attitudes that make more than half of the people under them not want to recommend it as a good place to work.
Ricketts has often talked about changing the culture in the Department of Corrections. That’s a huge problem in a much larger agency. Let’s hope he can gain some insight by working with the patrol to change its culture.
J.L. Schmidt is the statehouse correspondent for the Nebraska Press Association. He has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered independent for 18 years.