Governor, Nebraska Troopers Assn. at odds over State Patrol reforms

Nebraska State Troopers on duty at the state capitol. (Photo by Bill Kelly,NET News)
Nebraska Governor Ricketts and Chief of HR Jason Jackson. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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August 11, 2017 - 6:45am

Investigations in recent use-of-force incidents by Nebraska state troopers have placed Governor Pete Ricketts at odds with the troopers' union.


Troopers on duty at the state capitol.

Jason Jackson reviews report at a news conference.

Brian Petersen (L) and attorney Gary Young speak on behalf of the State Troopers Assn. of Nebraska. (Photos by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Ricketts wants to reopen negotiations on the labor contract approved six months ago by the trooper’s union, the State Law Enforcement Bargaining Council (SLEBC).

The governor wishes to drop provisions which the union claims provides law enforcement officers important protections when facing allegations resulting from their work. The governor claims the union rules limit “transparency” and hinders prompt, thorough reviews of alleged misconduct.

The attempt to re-write the contract is part of a broader list of changes recommended in a review of the patrol completed by the state’s chief of human resources, Jason Jackson.

The report followed Ricketts’ ouster of Col. Bradley Rice, the patrol’s commander, after he “failed to live up to my expectations with regard to how he was to lead that organization.” Ricketts chose Rice to lead the agency in 2015 over the objections of those in the patrol who saw him as a divisive leader.

The report from Jackson, released to reporters last week, went beyond the leadership failures under Rice, listing “policy shortcomings,” in Jackson’s words, which he and the governor agree could have been “contributing factors to some of the failures…of leadership’s response” to a series of alarming reports of “potential misconduct,” sexual harassment, and claims of an “unduly familiar” relationship between the then-NSP commander and head of the State Troopers Association of Nebraska (STAN).

Reacting to the report, STAN president and union leader Sgt. Brian Petersen told reporters the following day Jackson’s report showed “a lack of basic understanding of the patrol, of SLEBC, of the work of the troopers.”

“In some cases, the review makes claims that are demonstrably false,” Petersen added. “In other cases, they advance insults of good men and women in the patrol that put their lives on the line every day for the citizens of the state of Nebraska.”

Petersen is quick to point out he and other active duty officers agreed with Ricketts decision to fire Rice.

“The bottom line is, we were at opposition with Brad Rice's tenure (and) his leadership,” Petersen said. “History will prove that factually.”

A pair of 2016 state patrol “use of force” cases in western Nebraska, launched the controversy. In one case, an accident involved contact between a trooper’s patrol car and a drunk driver’s vehicle that resulted in the death of the driver.  In the second instance a trooper used the butt of his rifle to subdue an intoxicated suspect.

Jackson concluded Rice had “directly interfered with the conduct of internal affairs investigations” in those cases and two others.

An FBI investigation of possible misconduct is reportedly underway. Six other NSP officers were put on leave, awaiting the conclusion of that investigation.

Once news accounts brought the problem cases to light, Ricketts responded by dismissing Rice and initiating the inquiry by his human resources chief.

The report maintains problems run deeper than the former commander and his leadership team. It recommends changes in NSP policy, its code of conduct, Nebraska state law, and elements of the union contract.

Ricketts said the “revisions to NSP Internal Affairs policy and procedure…puts it in a position such that the internal affairs investigative process is above reproach.”

The most surprising was a call to re-open negotiations on the trooper’s union contract the governor signed earlier this year.

“We want to work with the union to remove internal affairs investigations… from the sphere of collective bargaining,” Jackson told reporters. “We believe the public policy dictates that internal affairs investigations should be something where we're afforded the maximum transparency permissible.”

One specific concern to the Ricketts' administration is a contract provision limiting release of internal affairs investigations to third parties without having a subpoena.

Among those without access is the Nebraska Crime Commission. The agency plays a major role in certifying police officers who want to get and keep their badge.


THE GOVERNOR'S REPORT

 


THE CONTRACT

 

A section of the SLEBC labor contract Governor Ricketts wants removed. 

To read the full report issued by the Ricketts' Administration about problems within the Nebraska State Patrol, click HERE.

The executive director of the commission makes recommendations when needed to review a law enforcement officer’s certification and brings it to the attention of the Police Standards Advisory Council (PSAC). Investigation records involving possible misconduct can be subpoenaed by PSAC. The director making a recommendation for a review does not have that authority.

“The crime commission and the executive director ought to have the opportunity to review the circumstances of officer termination when those terminations flow from officer misconduct,” Jackson told NET News earlier this week.

Not having the records available for review, Jackson maintained, risks police officers with problem records taking new jobs at other law enforcement agencies.

“We can mitigate against the risk of officers jumping to different jurisdictions when they know they have a record of conduct that is below our expectations of how law enforcement officers should conduct themselves,” Jackson said.

Darrell Fisher, the commission’s executive director and a former state trooper, told NET News he supports the change in the contract.

Gary Young, attorney for the trooper’s union, told reporters last week there’s no real threat of Nebraska law enforcement agencies hiring police officers with a record of misconduct at other police and sheriff departments.

Young says when someone applies for a position as a law enforcement officer in the state the agency is “going to require you to sign a release of your internal affairs files, all of your personnel files, for them to review.”

“If you don't give (the agency) a release, you won't get any further in the hiring process,” Young said. “This idea that they can sneak by other law enforcement agencies has no connection to the way that things actually happen.”

The union plans to vigorously oppose the change in contract language.

If the union and the governor can’t reach an agreement before the end of the year, Ricketts plans on asking the Legislature to pass a law overriding the contract provisions covering release of records.

Ricketts wants state senators to change another law affecting troopers. Currently, when accused of a crime or facing lawsuits related to police work, the state attorney general is required by statute to defend troopers in court.

Attorney General Doug Peterson told NET News, “I think it needs to be repealed.”

Peterson maintains because his office ordinarily prosecutes criminal cases the legal staff should not be responsible for defending troopers at odds with the law.

“That creates an ethical conflict for our office,” he said, “because I cannot be engaged in any type of investigation or prosecution, in light of this obligation.”

Young, the union’s legal counsel calls it “not really an issue” and a change in law the trooper’s association would likely oppose.

“What happens is, in those cases where the state attorney general feels like there may be a conflict, …they hire a special attorney general to conduct the case” eliminating the conflict of interest.

The governor’s push to remove limits on access to internal affairs reports comes as the Nebraska Crime Commission has been asked to review twelve cases in which state troopers are alleged to have taken part in “conduct that should have been reviewed by the crime commission” but which the state patrol failed to refer to the crime commission for adjudication.” According to the human resources report, the cases go back as far as eight years and could result in troopers, both in active duty and in some cases with other jobs in law enforcement, losing their police certification.

Peterson, president of the trooper’s association, says the Rickett’s proposal masks his responsibility addressing problems evident for several years at NSP.

“The concerns we have attempted to bring to the governor have been about the state patrol, the failure of leadership at the highest levels of the patrol, and the flagging morale of the troopers,” Peterson told reporters.

He maintains mistrust of the patrol rose out of Rickett’s decision to hire Colonel Rice in the first place.

“This to me, with Rice's termination is a clear shifting of the blame to the union which makes no sense to us because we've done what we could to highlight these issues and to give alarm to these issues and to fix it,” Peterson said.

A series of embarrassing stories about the patrol came in a torrent over the summer:

A meeting between representatives of the troopers' union and the governor’s office is expected before the end of the month to discuss issues raised in the report.

Discussion

 

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