Nebraska State Patrol Effort That Would Put On-Duty Troopers In Church Pews Brings Controversy

LINCOLN, NE – The goals of the plan sounded simple enough: Build public trust in the Nebraska State Patrol and bolster the agency’s image by getting troopers out into the community more often.

Col. Brad Rice wanted his roughly 385 officers to occasionally put down their ticket pads and put in appearances at the Friday night football game, the Saturday county fair and the Sunday church service.

The initiative by the newly appointed patrol superintendent drew mixed reviews within the agency. In emails obtained by The World-Herald, some ranking officers expressed no opinion about the proposal, while others firmly objected to allowing uniformed troopers to participate in church services.

In a recent interview, Rice said it was never his intention to allow on-duty troopers to attend weekly religious services with their families. Rather, he said, houses of worship are just one of several places he’d like to see troopers go to interact with the public.

Rice, a Christian known for opening staff meetings with prayer, also said he intends to keep church attendance as part of the community outreach program.

“We want people to know we are the guardians of democracy,” Rice said. “That’s the message we want to send out to the public. We’re there, we’re the good guys.”

Rice, who took over leadership of the agency earlier this year, declined to discuss the prospect of on-duty church attendance when the plan first became public in July. Instead, the patrol’s spokeswoman issued a statement that church attendance was just one part of a draft community outreach program under discussion by command staff.

The newspaper filed a public records request for documents related to the program. In response, the patrol released 106 pages of emails.

The earliest email is dated May 15, not quite two months after Gov. Pete Ricketts appointed Rice as the new head of the agency. The email contains a 1½-page draft of the program sent from a human resources administrator for approval by the colonel.

Promoting a positive image of the agency, increasing public trust in law enforcement and improving recruitment from “diverse community populations” are mentioned as potential benefits. In that way, the proposal is similar to community policing efforts endorsed by many law enforcement agencies, including Police Departments in Omaha and Lincoln and the Iowa State Patrol.

The program envisioned by Rice lists qualifying events as county fairs, community celebrations, ethnic festivals, school and college programs, musicals, recitals, performances, sporting events, church services and socials. On-duty troopers must avoid events where alcohol is served or that are political in nature, the draft stated.

In addition, the draft said participation in community outreach is considered a privilege, not a right, and troopers must obtain approval from supervisors before attending an event. Officers can’t incur overtime while participating, and events are to be within 5 miles of where the officer is scheduled to work.

Participation must “require a limited amount of work time, 15-30 minutes in duration, with good judgment used,” the draft stated.

On July 15, Rice emailed the draft proposal to his command staff, which consists of majors, captains and lieutenants in the patrol’s six geographic troop areas. The colonel asked for feedback on the idea and that the proposal be shared with representatives of the troopers’ labor union in each area.

In addition, Rice sent a copy of the draft to Sgt. Brian Petersen, union president with the State Troopers Association of Nebraska, and Matt Miltenberger, the governor’s chief of staff.

Reaction trickled in over the course of several days.

“I think this is a good idea and great opportunity for recruiting, especially local county fairs or even career days at area high schools,” Investigator Shanon Koubek said in a July 17 response to his supervisor.

The Rev. Steve Thomlison, who serves as a part-time chaplain for the patrol, sent an email to Rice pointing out that some mass shootings have occurred in churches. Maybe the program could help deter such violence, he added.

“Perhaps we should add theater lobbies to the list of encouraged community locations,” Thomlison said.

Some ranking officers questioned whether a formal community outreach program was necessary, given that some troopers already attend community events on occasion. Others offered suggestions on how to improve the draft proposal or better administer the program, they but didn’t weigh in on the church issue.

Five of the ranking officers, however, expressed concerns about allowing troopers to attend church services.

Capt. Lance Rogers, with the patrol’s administrative services division in Lincoln, said the public might frown on uniformed troopers attending church. He also questioned whether it would trigger similar requests from employees of other state agencies.

“As a taxpayer, I would be extremely disappointed that state employees using state resources are allowed to attend church functions,” Rogers wrote. “Citizens expect to see troopers out on the roads, not sitting in church pews.”

Capt. Mike Gaudreault, commander of Troop E in Scottsbluff, recommended not moving forward with the proposal because it could conflict with an agency policy that prohibits employees from engaging in activities or personal business at the expense of their duty.

“I would instead suggest to allow field commanders the opportunity to promote off-duty community outreach within their respective areas,” Gaudreault said.

Major Russ Stanczyk, who oversees the administrative services division, was the highest-ranking staff member to say in an email that he didn’t think it was a good idea to allow uniformed troopers to attend church.

In response to late July newspaper stories about the proposal, Rice sent an email to the agency’s three majors. He wanted them to spread the word down the chain of command to keep working on the draft proposal.

“Advise them not to let the process be sidetracked because I have no intention to let it be sidetracked either,” he said. “Sometimes doing the right thing isn’t easy.”

In the recent interview, Rice said he didn’t publicly discuss the proposal before because he thought it might quash feedback from his commanders. While the proposal currently remains in the evaluation stage, he said still wants to put a community outreach program in place.

Troopers need to interact more with the public, said Rice, who worked in road patrol when he began his 30-year career with the agency. Face to face interaction between police and the public can often produce tips that lead to arrests and convictions, he added.

To foster trust and acceptance, troopers have to go where people gather, Rice said. Community celebrations, sporting events and church services draw crowds, especially in smaller communities.

While it would be fine for troopers to occasionally put in an appearance at their own churches, he would also expect them to go to houses of worship where they are not members. But, he emphasized, churches would be just one example of an event they could attend.

During his years as a captain with the patrol, some employees supervised by Rice accused him of pushing his faith in the workplace. He was asked about the accusations by state senators during his confirmation hearing and said that while he didn’t hide that he was a man of faith, he didn’t force his beliefs on others.

Rice said he’s not trying to proselytize with his community outreach proposal.

“If we were saying to our troopers ‘We want you to attend church every Sunday,’ I agree that would be a legitimate perception,” he said, “but that’s not what we were saying.”

From The Omaha Word-Herald