Nebraska State Patrol study recommends hiring more troopers, improving morale

Nebraska State Trooper (Photo: NET News)
Nebraska State Trooper (Photo: NET News)
Nebraska State Troopers (Photo: NET News)
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April 10, 2014 - 6:30am

A shrinking force of uniformed officers, poor morale and high overtime costs are among the concerns raised in a research study commissioned by the Nebraska State Patrol.

NET News obtained a copy of the document, which was not intended for public release, through an open records request to the patrol.

The commander of the state patrol, Col. David Sankey, hired the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center (PPC) to collect data on the costs and effectiveness of shift assignments for its uniformed officers.

In 2012, NSP changed the scheduling policy for its sworn personnel, requiring all troopers to work five days of eight hour shifts, along with overtime when needed. Previously individual troop commanders around the state had greater flexibility in assigning work schedules.

The research report, delivered in December 2013, concludes the changes were detrimental to morale within the ranks. The report went beyond discussing trooper scheduling. In the opinion of the researchers, public safety could be enhanced with additional staff. The report estimates adding 80 additional positions would get the patrol to its desired staffing levels.

Responsibility for setting the patrol’s budget is in the hands of the legislature, based on requests made by the patrol and the governor.  Over the years the legislature increased the NSP’s work load, adding responsibilities like liquor enforcement and the sex offender registry. The researchers said it is important that elected officials weigh the impact of those additions on the budget and staffing.

Among the report’s recommendations:

  • Increase the number of sworn personnel
  • Resume recruit training following years of hiring no new troopers.
  • Examine why overtime costs routinely far exceed budget estimates and consider whether adding personnel could reduce the millions spent for working extra hours.
  • Work with regional troop leaders to estimate staffing needs and schedules, put the policy in writing, and review whether the staffing 

In praise of the patrol, the researchers added “it was clear to us that NSP personnel are dedicated, hardworking, and concerned about providing good service.”

Nebraska State Patrol emergency response training (Courtesy Photo)

Col. Sankey told NET News the patrol already addressed some of the recommended changes listed in the report. “I think we’re just trying to do the best job we can, trying to deploy our resources where they need to be deployed and identifying where our needs are,” Sankey said. “I think that’s what the study helps us do.”

The impact of tight budgets on the state patrol’s ability to carry out its responsibilities has been a growing concern among some troopers and state legislators.

Since 2000 the number of troopers patrolling highways in Nebraska declined by five percent while the state’s population rose, according to the PPC research. The report recommends NSP add troopers “to achieve the desired staffing levels in every Troop Area.” The report notes that might not be realistic under the current state budget, adding “we believe it is realistic to expect adequate staffing levels to achieve 24-hour coverage along the interstate and in urban areas, and 21-hour coverage in rural areas.”

The patrol’s Policy and Procedures Manual states the NSP “will attempt to provide uniformed personnel for 24-hour coverage seven days a week” if there are a sufficient number of troopers to cover those shifts.  The researchers noted the NSP had no policy setting the number of troopers needed to meet the minimum or desired shift coverage. The report suggests the patrol clearly identify staffing levels needed to meet public safety needs and make it part of a written policy.

After reviewing traffic safety data the Public Policy Center wasn’t able to conclusively show if the change in officers’ shifts made an impact, positive or negative, on accident and fatality rates or the response to calls for service to the patrol.

The report also suggested training classes be held every year while the patrol is below its desired strength. It had been up to three years since the previous class had graduated.  Twenty-one new recruits are currently undergoing training. Applications for a second class scheduled for October are currently being accepted. Whether those additions increase the total number of troopers on duty will depend in part on the number of retirements taking place among veteran officers.

 

Nebraska State Senator Russ Karpisek (Photo: Bill Kelly/NET News)

The findings disturbed Russ Karpisek, a state senator from Wilber. “I think we just don’t have people out there for protection like we should,” Karpisek said. “It’s very hard on our troopers as people and I don’t know if it’s good on the population because we don’t have the bodies to cover the miles. Karpisek had not seen the study until NET News provided him with a copy.

There are indications that less populated areas of the state are more likely to be understaffed with patrol officers, or in the words of the study, not meeting “minimum desired staffing levels” set by commanders of specific Troop Areas. Exact numbers of troopers assigned to Troop Areas and leadership estimates of their preferred staffing levels were blacked out of the copy of the report provided to NET News.

“I’ll always be willing to take more personnel,” Sankey said, “but I understand that the Legislature has many, many financial obligations they try to meet, and we will do our best with the personnel we have to work with now.”

Chart from the NSP study compares the number of troopers to the state's population. (Chart: Public Policy Center) The research report was accompanied by a 108-page appendix supporting and expanding on their research. CLICK HERE TO READ THE DOCUMENT. Some portions were redacted by the State Patrol prior to the documents release to NET News.

The total number of employees on the state patrol payroll increased since 2000 on account of a sizable increase in civilian workers hired to take over office duties once handled by troopers. These include fingerprinting, maintaining the sex offender registry and issuing gun permits.

One side effect of being short-staffed on road patrols has been payments of overtime far in excess of the patrol’s budget. Between 2007 and 2013, the state spent an average of $1,222,354 per year on state patrol overtime. In its most recent budget request submitted to the state legislature the patrol only asked for $370,000 for overtime.

Asked about the amount actually spent, Col. Sankey said “that’s a lot of money to pay for overtime” but added that payouts of more than a million dollars a year are “pretty consistent for what the state patrol has paid over the years.”

The Nebraska State Patrol leadership “would always like to bring those deficits down,” Sankey said. The PPC study noted the amount “seems relatively large” and suggested it would be “prudent” to look at whether money spent on overtime could be re-purposed for salaries to cut back on the number of hours worked by its employees.

The long hours and decision to change the shift work structure had a significant impact on trooper morale, according troopers surveyed by the PPC. Many of those questioned for the research report felt their work schedule had adversely effected their families and personal life.

The patrol had long had two options for scheduling troopers. They could be assigned shifts of:

  • four consecutive days a week, working 10 hours
  • five consecutive days a week, working eight hours

The most recent recruit class takes during training. (Photo: Courtesy NSP)

That decision was largely left to the commander of each of the six troop areas dividing the state. They determined the mix of work schedules to provide as much of the state as possible with road patrol during the most critical hours of the day and night.

In 2012, Col. Sankey and local trooper commanders, faced with the trooper shortfall, decided that a fixed, mandatory work schedule would help the patrol better cover the hours and territory required. All troopers were assigned eight hour shifts, five days a week.

Analysis completed by the Public Policy Center showed that the change had no impact on reducing overtime, accident rates the number of fatalities, or the response to calls from the public. It did have, in  Sankey’s words, “a tremendous negative impact on our morale.” Ninty-two percent of troopers surveyed said they preferred the old system. The PPC researchers wrote “we were left with the impression that troopers believed the impact of low morale would corrode the department’s ability to recruit and retain personnel in the future.”

Col. Sankey expected the change would be unpopular but said it “surprised me a little bit as to the extent of the negative morale.

In response to the report’s findings the patrol will resume giving commanders of individual troop areas the authority to determine which mix of shift assignments best meet the needs of their region. Previously they did so without any review by the chain of command. Future staffing plans need approval from headquarters and regular reports on the costs and results.

In recent years the state legislature added several duties to the patrol’s list of responsibilities, expanding the capitol security force, a missing persons information clearinghouse, management of a DNA database, and liquor enforcement. The PPC notes “although responsibilities have increased, the NSP has not significantly increased the number of its personnel.” The report says the patrol’s general approach has been “ to carry out statutorily mandated services while not increasing personnel costs.”  

 “They’re spread thin” said Karpisek. “There comes a time when you can’t just not spend. I think we are at the point now where we need to say we have to spend some money on these people.”

Karpisek, who leaves the Legislature at the end of this session because of term limits, hopes a new governor and 17 new senators will review the PPC report and reevaluate the patrol’s budget next year.

NET News made repeated requests for comment from leaders in the Nebraska State Troopers Association, who represent the uniformed officers, but received no response.

(Editor’s Note: After our original story was published the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center contacted NET News.  The report’s author felt the online version of our story, while factually accurate, needed additional clarification when summarizing the findings and recommendations made to the State Patrol. After reviewing the story and discussing specific concerns, NET News agreed to add content from the study and make some changes in wording.)

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