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While national debates once again cast light on racial diversity in law enforcement, west central Nebraska agencies regularly struggle to find enough bodies for their uniforms.

But local law enforcement leaders like North Platte Police Chief Daniel Hudson — who has firsthand knowledge of big-city police challenges — say strong relationships with all the groups police serve are vitally important.

“I think law enforcement in the last 20 years has made a significant push to diversity or to attempt to mirror our communities,” he said. “I think diversity is something that makes our profession strong.”

Even so, “our issue is to get qualified candidates, let alone a diversified candidate pool,” said Hudson, a Hemingford native who came to North Platte in 2018 after retiring as a Los Angeles Police Department lieutenant.

Hudson and several other regional law enforcement leaders spoke with The Telegraph as part of a joint project by Lee Enterprises’ Heartland newspapers on the extent of racial diversity in Nebraska law enforcement.

Hudson joined the LAPD shortly after five days of racially charged riots in South Central Los Angeles in spring 1992, sparked by the previous police beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of the four officers who were involved.

The riots became the catalyst for change in the LAPD, said Hudson, who subsequently worked on some of Los Angeles’ toughest streets with the agency’s gang unit.

LAPD leaders sought to build a more multicultural agency among their sworn officers and employees, he said.

The LAPD also instituted new training procedures and “community policing” policies, some of which were required under a federal court “consent decree.”

“The Los Angeles Police Department that I retired from was dramatically different than the one I joined,” Hudson said. “The professionalism, the organizational (aspects) and the outreach to the community were tremendously different.”

Hudson took LAPD’s stress on community policing to heart. He and Lincoln County Sheriff Jerome Kramer were among law enforcement officers standing beside participants in a peaceful protest and a walk on successive weekends after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

“Every (law enforcement) department in the country says we do community policing,” Hudson said. “The reality is most departments have one or two (individuals) who do it.

“Our goal as a profession should be to ensure that all of our officers are out there actively involved in the community and making inroads in the community.”

In community policing, officers build relationships through interactions with the public through events as simple as North Platte’s monthly “Coffee with a Cop.”

Graphic by Lee Enterprises

That’s one tool that can build community trust in law enforcement, Hudson said, but increasing diversity is another. At present, all 40 of his sworn officers are white and 38 are male.

“We talk about it as we get into the hiring process when we send officers to colleges to do recruitment seminars,” Hudson said. “We are always looking for unrepresented minorities.”

A September 2019 study by the Police Executive Research Forum found the number of job applicants had decreased 27% to 36% over the past five years for the majority of U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Meanwhile, a growing number of officers are nearing eligibility for retirement and more are leaving their departments or the profession before they retire.

It’s also challenging to recruit law enforcement candidates to largely rural western Nebraska, because many prefer living in urban areas for lifestyle or financial reasons.

“It is really difficult (to recruit) right now, and it is more difficult for a smaller department to compete with the larger ones,” said Keith County Sheriff Jeff Stevens of Ogallala.

He has three women, one of them Black, and a Latino man on his 21-member staff of sworn deputies and corrections officers.

“We just can’t pay” salaries to compete with urban departments, though “the good thing about a smaller area and a smaller department is our cost of living and rent is more comparable with what we do pay,” Stevens said.

Graphic by Lee Enterprises

Sometimes, as in McPherson County in the southern Sandhills, finding just one law enforcement officer is challenge enough.

Sheriff Thomas Burch, like many of his predecessors, is his county’s one and only law enforcement officer. He had been a part-time deputy on an as-needed basis since the early 1990s until Sheriff Kelly Williams resigned nine months ago.

McPherson County has pretty much always been a one-person sheriff’s operation since its inception in 1890, according to Burch.

Arthur, Hooker, Hayes and Blaine counties are among the others in Nebraska with one-person sheriff’s offices.

In a perfect world, Burch said, he would have his own part-time deputy to help. But McPherson County’s budget constraints mean that’s a nonstarter, he said.

“With only 500 people in the county, we really can’t justify paying somebody else,” said Burch, who added he doesn’t intend to serve as sheriff past the end of Williams’ term in January 2023.

“You try and maintain a good relationship with your citizenry, because they pretty much are all the backup you’ve got until (other law enforcement) arrives.”

The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office has a Native American and an Asian among the 23 sworn deputies in Kramer’s department.

In addition, seven minority officers — five Latino and two Black — are among the 40 members of the Lincoln County Detention Center staff.

“I think (staff diversity) is a positive thing,” Kramer said. “Every aspect of life has a different outlook on things, and when you get those people working together and mixing their ideas, it makes for a stronger, more well-rounded agency. We embrace that.

“We are still going to hire the most qualified people, regardless of the color of their skin. That’s not what we look at. We have a (civil service) testing procedure, and I have to hire from the top three (candidates).

“Whatever that mix happens to be is what we live with at the end of the day, and we are happy with it.”

Hudson would like to increase the racial diversity among North Platte police officers, especially because Latinos make up about 10.6% of the population according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

“We are about to start a hiring process here again, and it will be interesting to see what that candidate pool looks like,” Hudson said.

Given “the environment in our country today, and unfortunately the way it is portrayed in certain media markets, it doesn’t make it any easier for us to recruit high-quality people who want to be police officers.”

Hudson said he can get 30 or more applicants for an opening among his sworn officers. But those numbers dwindle as people drop out during the process or are unable to pass a background check or a written, physical or polygraph test.

One or two candidates might be left after all the tests, Hudson said, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are the right fit.

“We are not hiring people because of, ‘Hey, I need to have someone,’” he said. “We are looking for a person of character, compassion, empathy and maturity.”

Steve Scott, Broken Bow’s police chief for more than 15 years, also happens to the only member of his seven-officer force to fall within a racial minority group as defined by the census.

Scott, who is Puerto Rican, said he prefers to hire individuals with ties to Broken Bow or the local area. Five of his officers fit that category.

“I look more at a local person than bringing someone in from a bigger department, because they are more likely to stay,” Scott said. “They are just more familiar with the area and the town that the police department is in.

“In the rural areas, you don’t really get the minority candidates. I don’t seem to get that many applications from minorities applying, and it really hasn’t been an issue.”

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