Officials still unsure on changing drug-use standards for police recruits

Governor nixed proposal to lower standards to attract more applicants; data he requested doesn’t exist, officials say

By: - August 25, 2023 5:45 am
Nebraska State Patrol recruits

Agencies like the Nebraska State Patrol are working to increase the number of applicants to join law enforcement amid a nationwide drop in candidates. (Courtesy of the Nebraska State Patrol)

LINCOLN — A law enforcement panel is still considering whether to adjust its drug-use standards for new recruits after Gov. Jim Pillen recently rejected a proposal to relax them.

But one thing is clear — statistics sought by the governor aren’t available to indicate how many potential recruits are deterred by the current standards: no marijuana use in past two years and no hard drug use in the last five years.

Both Bryan Tuma, the head of the Nebraska Crime Commission, and Brian Jackson, an assistant Lincoln police chief who chairs the State Police Standards Advisory Council, said such statistics aren’t kept.

Recruiting vs. resignations

A recent survey found that while the number of recruits entering U.S. law enforcement training is on the rebound, agencies are losing officers to retirement and resignations faster than they can hire replacements.

The annual survey of 182 agencies by the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum found that overall staffing was down 4.8% as of Jan. 1, 2023 compared to Jan. 1, 2020.

In Nebraska, the State Patrol was operating at about 60 troopers below its authorized strength of 482, while the Lincoln Police Department, Jackson said, was about 30 officers below full staffing.

In February, the Omaha World-Herald reported that the Omaha Police Department was 102 officers short of its authorized strength of 906.

In addition, they said it would be impossible to know how many potential recruits don’t apply once they learn of Nebraska’s standards.

Jackson compared it to trying to determine how many crimes police prevented today.

“That’s part of the problem,” said Tuma, a former superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol.

‘Extenuating circumstances’

One option in Nebraska, Tuma said, would be to retain the current standards but consider “extenuating circumstances” — as is allowed in state rules — in case a recruit of otherwise good character had violated the drug-use standards.

The Nebraska Examiner first reported the governor’s rejection of the rule change proposed by the police council, a change that was portrayed as part of an effort to get more recruits into law enforcement training. The proposal would lower the drug-use standards to no marijuana use within one year and no hard drug use within three years.

Nebraska’s explicit drug standards appear to be somewhat unusual.

Both Iowa and Colorado do not have statewide standards for drug use among recruits, leaving that decision up to local law enforcement officers.

In Colorado, where recreational marijuana use is legal, agencies still prohibit their officers from using pot, according to Lawrence Pacheco of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.

Iowa’s rules prohibit recruits who have convictions for crimes of “moral turpitude.” In those cases, a state council decides whether a recruit will be permitted to attend a law enforcement training academy or not.

Nebraska’s rules are a minimum for acceptance into the state’s Law Enforcement Training Center in Grand Island. Local agencies can adopt stricter standards.

But checks with law enforcement academies run by the Omaha police and Sarpy County law enforcement agencies indicated they adhere to the current state standard — no pot use in two years, no hard drug use in five years.

National struggles with hiring

The Nebraska Police Standards Advisory Committee discussed the governor’s rejection of the drug-use policy at its Aug. 16 meeting without making a decision.

Jackson said the issue will be discussed again at its next meeting on Sept. 20.

Pillen in rejecting the relaxation of drug-use standards, said he understood the policy was aimed at allowing more recruits for law enforcement, but he said he felt it wasn’t “prudent” to adopt such a change without “data” showing that significant numbers of recruits were being disqualified by Nebraska’s current policy.

He invited officials to gather the data and resubmit the rule change, which apparently isn’t going to happen.

Tuma said Nebraska, along with the entire country, is seeing a smaller pool of applicants for law enforcement positions and battling less interest in it as a career.

It’s possible that drug use by younger people is part of the problem, he said.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.