David City revives police department after tough Butler County sheriff’s race

Losing sheriff’s candidate Schnell named police chief

By: - March 13, 2023 5:15 am

David City’s new police chief, Marla Schnell, with one of the city’s first part-time officers since reconstituting the David City Police Department. They’re standing in front of one of the department’s first vehicles. (Courtesy of David City)

DAVID CITY, Neb. — This spring, David City will do its own policing again, reviving a city police department after more than a decade of paying Butler County to do the job. 

The new David City Police Department will be led by the last police officer the city paid to patrol its streets, former Butler County Deputy Marla Schnell.

Butler County Sheriff’s Deputy Marla Schnell says she decided to run for sheriff after many of her co-workers started looking for jobs elsewhere because of how they said Sheriff Tom Dion treated them. Dion says the people complaining are malcontents. (Courtesy of Marla Schnell)

Schnell turned out the lights for the city department in October 2012, when David City began contracting with the Butler County Sheriff’s Office to enforce city ordinances.

This year, she was the city’s first hire when it chose to rebuild a police force after disagreements with the Sheriff’s Office about whether David City’s nearly $300,000 contract was being met.

Mayor Jessica Miller said the people in David City knew and trusted Schnell from her stints with the city and county. She said residents are excited about having a police department again.

They’re ready to know who they can call about an illegally parked car, loud music or worse, she said. Schnell, while at the Sheriff’s Office, often handled difficult cases involving children. 

“That’s why we hired her as chief,” Miller said. “Because she does a good job.”

Schnell said it was great to go back to work for the city, which is home to 3,022 people. 

Butler County Sheriff Tom Dion says the county has gotten better law enforcement under his leadership. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

“Growing a new department is better” than shutting down an old one, she said. 

Her goal is a department with four full-time officers and 24/7 coverage. Schnell has already hired a pair of part-time officers, both of whom were former co-workers at the Sheriff’s Office.

She’s reviving the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program in local schools. She’s stopping into local businesses to reintroduce herself in the new role and to see what people need. 

Schnell lost a contentious election for Butler County sheriff last fall to her then-boss, Sheriff Tom Dion.

Schnell and others complained about Dion’s management, saying experienced deputies had left for other jobs or were considering leaving because of him. 

She said the county was lagging in writing tickets for city ordinance infractions in David City and in other contracted cities because of shorter staffing and shift schedules.

Dion defended his management, saying Schnell and 10 others who spoke to the Nebraska Examiner were unhappy employees and former employees with a grudge. 

One of Schnell’s first hires was Devin Betzen, a popular former deputy who said Dion fired him for telling the truth about the condition of his service vehicle, which he and others said needed repairs. 

Dion had said in a letter that Betzen had driven the vehicles too hard, which Betzen denied. Betzen is also the mayor’s nephew, so she said she sat out the vote on his hiring to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. 

Schnell also hired Jason Reed, a former K-9 officer with the Sheriff’s Office. Several employees the Examiner spoke with expressed concerns about how Butler County handled its K-9 program.

Dion did not immediately return a message Friday seeking comment. He has complained that the Examiner’s story didn’t reflect the reality of his work.

David City’s police department is in the process of ramping up to full operations in April.

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.