In December, the Nebraska State Patrol graduated a class of 16 new state troopers, but the addition still left the force well short of its authorized strength. (Courtesy of the Nebraska State Patrol)

This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.

LINCOLN — The number of state troopers patrolling Nebraska highways has hit a new low, though the head of the State Patrol said Tuesday he is seeing some good news in rebuilding the force.

Col. John Bolduc, superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol, told a state legislative committee that he has 69 vacant posts for state troopers out of an authorized force of 482 uniform officers.

Nebraska State Patrol Supt. Col. John Bolduc
Col. John Bolduc, superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

“To be blunt, it’s the worst it’s ever been,” Bolduc told members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

Raise coming

Bolduc appeared before the committee to testify in favor of Gov. Jim Pillen’s budget recommendation for the agency, which includes a record 22% increase in trooper salaries effective July 1.

The colonel told the committee that the Patrol faces the same “headwinds” that are impacting recruiting and retention in law enforcement agencies nationwide — a tight labor market, rising pay in competing jobs, and “some pretty spectacularly bad headlines” about in-custody deaths involving police.

“It’s a big challenge,” Bolduc said.

The Patrol currently has 15 recruits in a training camp, which compares to 20-25 in the past, but it is still higher than a recent camp that had eight trooper candidates.

Smaller recruit camps

Neighboring states are also seeing fewer applicants, he said. A recruit class of five is currently in training in Kansas, Bolduc said, and a class of 20 is training in Missouri, a state with more than three times the population of Nebraska.

“We’re getting some really great candidates, we’re just not getting enough of them,” he said.

There’s been some good news lately, the colonel told the committee. Seventy-nine candidates applied for the next recruit camp in the first 10 days, he said, which is the most ever in that time frame.

That, Bolduc said, may reflect recent publicity about the salary increases.

New state prison, overtime expenses

The colonel also told the committee that hiring two new fingerprint technicians, as proposed in the governor’s budget, should help resolve the slow turnaround of background checks that has slowed hiring of child care workers.

maximum security cells
A new, 384-bed maximum security wing opened at the Reception and Treatment Center in Lincoln last year, but instead of being used, as intended, to hold the state’s most dangerous inmates, it has become temporary quarters for inmates displaced by a broken water main at the State Penitentiary. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

The Appropriations Committee also took testimony Tuesday about the proposed budget for the state prison system. It includes a $24.9 million deficit request to cover increased salaries for security staff and inflationary costs of food and medical care for inmates that weren’t covered in the last budget.

The newly proposed budget features the final $95 million allocation to construct a new, $350-million state prison, which can house more than 1,500 inmates.

Diane Sabatka-Rine, the interim director of the Nebraska Department of Corrections, said the department can’t wait any longer for the new prison. It is intended to replace the aging State Penitentiary in Lincoln, where a recent water main break flooded a housing unit, forcing the relocation of 140 inmates.

Salary hikes helped, but vacancies remain

She said that salary increases granted to security staff had shown “remarkable success” in filling over 400 vacancies in corrections corporals and others over the past year.

But Doug Koebernick, the inspector general for corrections, testified that the agency still had 362 vacancies in all positions as of Jan. 1, and that two facilities, in Tecumseh and the Reception and Treatment Center in Lincoln, are still under staffing “emergencies” that result in interruptions in rehabilitation programming and other activities.

Koebernick said that state prisons have a critical shortage of health workers, with only six of 18 psychologist positions filled and the agency lacking any psychiatrists.

What does it say about our state if we spend $350 million for a new prison but not spend money to address child poverty?

– Diane Amdor of Nebraska Appleseed

State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln questioned whether Corrections, given the salary increases, will be able to reduce its overtime expenses, which exceeded $20 million in the last fiscal year.

Sabatka-Rine said overtime costs remain high for several reasons. She said one is that staff working at the two prisons under emergency staffing automatically get overtime because they work four 12-hour shifts a week.

Some reject new prison

Three testifiers, including representatives of Nebraska Appleseed and the ACLU of Nebraska, urged the committee to reject funding for a new prison and instead consider sentencing reforms that would gradually reduce the flow of inmates.

“Our punitive response to violence does not work,” said Fran Kaye, a longtime volunteer in state prisons.

She suggested alternatives to incarceration, releasing inmates who don’t pose a threat to public safety and investing in policies that address poverty and joblessness.

Diane Amdor of Nebraska Appleseed said providing tax credits per children, which cut child poverty in half during the COVID-19 pandemic, would be a better investment.

“What does it say about our state if we spend $350 million for a new prison but not spend money to address child poverty?” Amdor said.

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