Criminal investigations inside Nebraska prisons would shift to state patrol if senators approve

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February 9, 2018 - 6:45am

Inside Nebraska’s 10 correctional facilities two people are responsible for all criminal investigations.

They are the only certified law enforcement employed by the Department of Correctional Services (NDCS).

Sen. Chambers (L) speaks with Jim Maguire and Benny Noordhoek after judiciary committee testimony (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Crime Report

Doug Heminger did the investigation into allegations a corrections employee smuggled drugs into the Lincoln penitentiary. CLICK HERE to read the affidavit, typical work for an investigator with NDCS, submitted to the Lancaster County Attorney.

A proposed change in state law, recently discussed before the Legislature’s judiciary committee, would move responsibility for criminal investigations to the Nebraska State Patrol. Oversight of criminal investigations inside state prisons would be supervised within the patrol’s chain of command.

Senator Ernie Chambers, who sponsors LB 816, told fellow committee members “we generally don’t have bills that are this straightforward (and) uncomplicated.”

Under the current system, investigators report to civilian administrators and attorneys at NDCS, a situation like no other in the state’s law enforcement community.

They are the only NDCS employees trained and certified as law officers by the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Academy.

The investigators are responsible for investigating, sometimes with back-up from other agencies, a range of crimes committed on the grounds of prisons and correctional facilities.

“It can be an assault where one inmate may allege that another inmate may have assaulted them,” explained Doug Heminger, who became a criminal investigator last July. “It can be an inmate alleging that a staff member has done something inappropriate or illegal or an allegation that a visitor who is visiting the institution is bringing something in illegally.”

Heminger and his partner have approximately 40 open cases.

“I don’t feel like I am overworked or that it‘s overwhelming. I feel like we can handle the caseload that is going on.”

According to data supplied by NDCS, the investigations team closed 118 cases at all of the correctional facilities and referred 92 of those cases to county attorneys to decide if they should be prosecuted. The department said most were felonies, but it does not break down specific offenses or track their outcome in court.

Those testifying in favor of transferring the criminal investigations out of correctional services expressed surprise that two people would be handling all cases at facilities separated by hundreds of miles.

Benny Noordhoek, who left his job as a criminal investigator last year, told members of the judiciary committee it was common to juggle 80 open, active cases at once.

Sometimes that meant slow progress on even serious felony assaults investigations, he claimed.

“It’s not that they are not getting investigated, but there are so many you just have to get to them when you get to them,” Noordhoek testified. “I know people are frustrated, but eventually they will get investigated.”

During questioning, Sen. Bob Krist asked Noordhoek if, in his opinion, two investigators were enough to handle the workload.

“Not even close,” he replied, adding “a realistic number would be 10 to 15 for 10 facilities.”

State correctional facilities currently hold around 5,500 inmates. Chadron and Wayne, two cities with similar populations, have police forces with six to 15 sworn officers.

Jim Maguire, representing the Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police, spoke in favor of the bill.

“Hearing there are only two investigators for the 10 institutions is shocking,” he testified, comparing the police presence at correctional centers to what is found at some public schools.

“A Class A school in Omaha has a certified law enforcement officer (assigned to) that school and to be blunt I was surprised there was not a certified law officer in the corrections facilities spread across Nebraska.”

The investigators are not the only security at each institution, but they are the only two trained as police officers.

Asked who among corrections officers is authorized to carry firearms, communications director Dawn-Renee Smith responded “the criminal investigators are the only NDCS employees authorized to carry firearms within the scope of their positions. Correctional officers assigned to armed posts (perimeter patrols, towers) are weapons-qualified and are assigned weapons while on post.”

Investigator Heminger, in an interview with NET News, said the state patrol helps with the most challenging cases. He claimed his unit made a dent in the backlog since he took the job in July 2017.

“I would say we started with about 150 open cases and we are currently down to about 40 open cases,” he said. “In a short period of time we managed to cut into the workload, cut into the cases, vet them out thoroughly and do a good job investigating.”

Proponents of transferring the investigators to the state patrol also expressed concern about civilian administrators within NDCS making decisions about what cases to investigate and which to send on to county prosecutors.

Under the current system, investigators pass findings on to a supervisor and the NDCS legal team. Final say about releasing reports to a prosecutor lies with a deputy warden.

In his opening remarks, Senator Chambers speculated the interests of NDCS bosses might sometimes conflict with the findings in a criminal investigation.

“If investigations of employees have occurred, has there ever been any interference from what you might call administrative personnel if the investigation seems to come close to somebody that the administration might not like to have investigated?”

No one testified about interference with specific cases, but former investigator Noordhoek told NET News he at times questioned his supervisor’s priorities.

Noordhoek said he felt because his boss “wasn’t a law enforcement officer sometimes some of the cases didn’t get assigned out that I thought should have.”

Sen. Krist said, based on what he has heard, NDCS has “an investigative group that, even if they are doing the best job they can, their efforts are being quashed at some point.”

James Davis, deputy ombudsman for corrections, is part of the state’s watchdog agency monitoring the prison system. He told senators there has been a long history of NDCS working to keep law enforcement investigations inside the corrections chain of command.

Organizing the investigation chain in that manner, Davis testified, means there could be “a conflict of interest where if it gets too hot for somebody, they know they could halt the investigation” when in practice those types of cases “should go to a county attorney” to decide if charges should be filed.

NDCS investigator Heminger said in an interview that has not been a concern for him in his six months on the job.

“I haven’t felt hindered in any way by the fact that people I am passing my recommendation to are not necessarily law enforcement themselves,” he said. “I have never felt they haven’t taken me seriously or my recommendations.”

No one spoke in opposition to LB 816 before the committee.

Neither correctional services or the state patrol chose to testify.  Asked for comment after the hearing neither agency would say if they supported or opposed the bill.

Later the judiciary committee will vote whether to advance the bill for debate by the full Legislature.



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