EDITOR’S NOTE: Newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises in Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas recently compared the diversity of their local law enforcement agencies to the communities those police serve. The diversity of law enforcement is drawing increased attention in the wake of a number of cases nationwide in which racial injustice at the hands of police is alleged to have occurred.
KEARNEY — Using social media and programs in the schools and community, law enforcement officers in central Nebraska are trying to be more visible to reach the diverse segments of the area’s population.
Newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises in Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas recently compared the diversity of their local law enforcement agencies to the communities they serve. The diversity of law enforcement is drawing increased attention in the wake of a number of cases nationwide in which racial injustice at the hands of police is alleged to have occurred.
Efforts are made to hire the best candidates for area law enforcement teams, but there are challenges.
Buffalo County Sheriff Neil Miller uses local, state and national employment agencies to try to hire road patrol officers and fill positions at the Buffalo County Jail and the 911 communications center.
Veteran deputies also attend area college career fairs in an effort to reach a larger audience and more diverse candidates.
However, it’s difficult to get anyone interested in law enforcement in general, Miller said, because of police being in the national spotlight this year. He believes many people are rethinking careers in law enforcement.
“There are times when we have absolutely no applications on file, with an opening in the jail, and absolutely no one to interview,” he said.
Fewer applications also are being received for road patrol positions.
So, the Buffalo and Phelps County Sheriff’s Offices, and the Kearney and Holdrege Police Departments turn their focus to community outreach programs to tell their stories.
Kearney Police Chief Bryan Waugh said, “We understand the diverse makeup of our community and take pride in our valued relationships, built over many years of trust, fairness, consistency, care, compassion and impartial delivery of police service and enforcement action.”
The Buffalo County Sheriff’s Office and Kearney Police Department often partner with the community to solve crimes and prevent them.
The agencies are involved in several community outreach programs, including Buffalo County Community Partners Positive Pressure and Be Safe Be Smart. They also work with area organizations including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Family Advocacy Network, Central Nebraska Drug Court, Region 3 Behavioral Health Services, Hot Meals USA and the University of Nebraska at Kearney Community Advisory Board.
“We recognize the need to impact all segments of the community and make sure our officers embrace community policing in their daily duties within all neighborhoods,” said Waugh.
Within the last several years KPD has organized several community events to reach a diverse audience, including Coffee with a Cop, Pop with a Cop, National Night Out, Faith and Blue, High Five and Lunch with Leaders. They host several events at schools, NextDoor, Ring Neighbors, Kearney Area Retail Loss Prevention Team and Cops and Bobbers.
KPD recently launched Operations N.E.T.S. (Neighborhood Engagement Through Sports) in partnership with Kearney CrossFit and CHI Health Good Samaritan. The program allows officers to play catch, shoot hoops or toss a football with children and give the equipment to the kids.
“These moments allow the youth to interact with police officers in a fun setting, once again building positive relationships,” Waugh said.
Despite the obstacles presented by COVID-19 this year, the Holdrege Police Department also continues to interact and form bonds in the community.
The department recently took part in National Night Out on Oct. 6 and Coffee with a Cop on Oct. 7. National Night Out, which is typically the first Tuesday in August, was moved to the first Tuesday in October because of the pandemic. The Holdrege Police Department collaborates with the Phelps County Sheriff’s Department and Phelps County Crimestoppers to participate in the event, which is designed to bring neighborhoods together, strengthen neighborhood spirit and send a message that local neighborhoods stand against crime.
Holdrege Police Chief Dennis Damoude said normally 14 neighborhoods participate in National Night Out, but only one participated this year. Coffee with a Cop the following day had a stronger response.
“We had a very good response, which I was a little surprised,” said Damoude. “We had deputies there. We had the county attorney there. We had a trooper there. We tried to have the emergency manager there. We had a communications officer there.”
The Holdrege police also reaches out to younger generations by participating in the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program and going to elementary schools to read books to students. Police officers also take part in Healthy Kids Day at the Don Sjogren Community YMCA in Holdrege.
Damoude also reaches the community by going on the local radio station to talk about different topics. His next appearance will be Oct. 29 to talk about Halloween safety and some scams popping up in the region.
For more than 30 years both Buffalo County and Kearney have taught the D.A.R.E. program, which aims to prevent the use of controlled drugs, membership in gangs and violent behavior.
Buffalo County Sheriff Miller said, “D.A.R.E. isn’t only a great way to educate our youth, but also a way to engage young people in a very positive manner. This also allows a positive experience and outcome providing an opportunity for a first name relationship between officer and student giving them a resource in times of difficulties or trouble.”
In 2007, KPD implemented a designated school resource officer program to ensure that students see law enforcement officers daily at Kearney’s public schools. Two officers rotate between two middle schools and 10 elementary schools, while the third officer is at Kearney High School.
In Buffalo County, a deputy rotates teaching D.A.R.E. in one of the seven communities surrounding Kearney.
Waugh and Miller said both education plans give students and officers the ability to interact with each other in a non-official contact relationship, giving police a better opportunity to meet the needs of all students.
“The value in the relationships built by the SROs with the students, staff and parents is immeasurable in a successful police organization,” Waugh said. “Our SROs are mentors, coaches, leaders and role models within the schools and the community, establishing a high level of trust between the police and community.”
Both agencies based in Kearney use social media, mainly Twitter and Facebook, as other ways to engage all segments of the community they serve.