Bonuses and streamlined transfers tried as ways to address shortage in law enforcement ranks

Agencies are getting a fraction of applicants compared to previous years

By: - April 4, 2022 5:00 am
Buffalo County Sheriff's Office

Law enforcement officers, and other public officials, are barred from using public resources, like an official uniform, in a campaign advertisement. (Courtesy of the Buffalo County Sheriff’s Office)

LINCOLN — Buffalo County Sheriff Neil Miller can remember the days when applicants to become sheriff’s deputies filled two rooms.

Today, he said he’ll be lucky to get six or seven applicants for the two openings he has in his agency of 35.

“I’m getting one-tenth of the applicants that we used to get eight to 10 years ago,” said Miller, who has served as sheriff in the central Nebraska county for 32 years.

To respond to what he calls “a crisis” in hiring and retention of law enforcement officers, the associations that represent police and sheriffs personnel banded together this year to push for help from the Nebraska Legislature.

‘Streamlined’ transfer

The result is Legislative Bill 1241, introduced by State Sen. Steve Lathrop. The bill appears headed for final approval.

Sen. Steve Lathrop
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

The proposal would streamline the process of allowing a certified law enforcement officer from another state to become certified and work in Nebraska.

Under an amendment to the bill from Elmwood Sen. Robert Clements, $10 million over the next two years would be set aside to provide hiring bonuses for those entering the law enforcement field and retention bonuses for those who remain in law enforcement.

Lathrop said the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, heard plenty of testimony this year about the difficulty in hiring new recruits for law enforcement, particularly from rural agencies.

‘Struggling to hire’

“They’re struggling to hire, and the bonuses that were amended in will help,” the Omaha senator said. 

State Sen. Robert Clements
State Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

“We want to show that the Legislature has support for law enforcement, and try to help them rebuild their forces,” said Clements, who sponsored the amendment for bonuses.

Under LB 1241, certified law enforcement officers transferring to Nebraska from another state would have to pass a physical fitness test, a background check to ensure they’re in good standing and a new “reciprocity” test to ensure they are fit for service here.

The process would be quicker than the weeks-long training academy now required, Lathrop said.

The hiring bonuses would be permitted at law enforcement agencies that are under their authorized strength. These agencies would be able to apply for state grants to provide bonuses.

Focus on smaller agencies

Only agencies with less than 150 officers would be eligible for the hiring bonuses, thus ruling out the Omaha and Lincoln Police Departments and the Nebraska State Patrol. Each agency would determine the size of the hiring bonuses it would offer.

The retention bonuses would be more heavily weighted toward smaller police departments and sheriff’s offices. Sworn personnel in agencies with 75 or fewer sworn officers would get $1,500 after one year of service, $2,500 after three years and $3,000 after five years.  

Retention bonuses for officers, troopers and deputies with agencies with more than 75 sworn officers would be $750, and only offered after one year of service.

We weren’t really well liked for a couple of years. We didn’t do ourselves any favors.

– Jim Maguire, Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police

Jim Maguire, president of the Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police, said all law enforcement agencies have been struggling to recruit new officers after the wave of bad publicity caused by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis in May 2020.

“We weren’t really well liked for a couple of years. We didn’t do ourselves any favors,” Maguire said. “That made a big impact.”

He said that when he talks to students about pursuing a career in law enforcement, fewer prospects emerge because of the negative publicity and the dangerous nature of the job.

Maguire, an Omaha police officer who used to be a Douglas County sheriff’s deputy, said the sheriff’s office got 1,800 applicants for eight open positions when he first applied back in the 1990s.

Application deadlines extended

But just recently, he said, both the Douglas County sheriff and the Omaha police had to extend their application deadlines for open positions because they hadn’t gotten the desired number of candidates.

It’s worse in the states rural areas, said Miller, the Buffalo County sheriff.

He has talked to fellow sheriffs who have advertised openings for a year without filling them. One rural county has only 50% of its authorized force, Miller said.

He added that some larger agencies like the Omaha Police Department are offering hiring incentives to move from smaller departments. That “poaching” slims the ranks at agencies that don’t pay as well, Miller said. Plus, he said, some officers are retiring and others are resigning over the negative vibes about being in the profession.

Early retirement

“I just lost a 15 year-deputy, a great guy, who decided he wanted to get into the private world and out of law enforcement,” Miller said. “He was burned out.”

Making it easier for a law enforcement officer to transfer from another state should help to attract candidates from states where police aren’t as respected as they are in Nebraska, Miller said.

 “We’re so very, very fortunate due to the support we get from the local community,” the sheriff said.

The retention bonuses, he said, may help convince rural police officers and sheriff’s deputies to stay put, rather than move on to larger agencies.

LB 1241 advanced from second-round debate on a 42-0 vote on March 23. It is expected to come up for final-round approval sometime during the final seven days of the 2022 session.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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