The Nebraska State Patrol is a valued, professional, successful statewide law enforcement agency.
Its 700 employees provide expert help to local sheriffs offices and police agencies. The patrol runs a respected statewide crime lab. It classifies and keeps tabs on sex offenders.
Its $75 million-a-year public safety mission is among the most important that Nebraska taxpayers fund.
So when Gov. Pete Ricketts’ choice to head the patrol ran into unusual resistance, state senators were doing their jobs and scrutinizing an important gubernatorial nominee.
Now, after hours of confirmation debate, lawmakers have approved his nomination and Col. Brad Rice is at the agency’s helm.
So it is time to look forward at what Nebraskans should expect with regard to the elephant in the hearing room — the small number of women and minorities in patrol uniforms.
According to the patrol, of its 474 sworn officers, only 29 are women and 15 are people of color. Of the 120 patrol positions at the rank of sergeant or above, only four are held by women.
In contrast, two of the Omaha Police Department’s four deputy chiefs are women, including the head of criminal investigations, and a third is Latino. Two of the four most recent Omaha police chiefs have been African-Americans. One-third of the Lincoln Police Department’s 15 captains are women, including the captain who leads its officer training.
Diversity in the ranks is a challenge faced by many law enforcement agencies. It also can be difficult to recruit for state police work, where troopers can be assigned to far-flung posts and relocations are common.
Still, building a force that better reflects the state’s demographic makeup is an important goal, especially in this era of increased public scrutiny of police.
Better reflecting all Nebraskans should be an agency priority, Rice told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing.
Still, several of his legislative critics argued that Rice’s past could make achieving broader diversity more difficult.
Rice served on a patrol committee that recommended troopers for promotions. One female trooper successfully sued for gender discrimination and won a judgment. During his tough confirmation process, questions were raised about Rice’s own views on women in law enforcement. Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln said the patrol needs more than someone who is just “OK.”
Rice acknowledged the patrol’s problems in hiring and promotions, and he said he wants to address the disparity that has long been an issue.
The patrol needs the next several recruit classes to be more reflective of the state it serves, and Rice has talked about changing the patrol’s recruitment strategy to become more inclusive.
With the governor’s backing and a 32-7 vote of confidence from the Legislature, Rice is now in a position to follow through.