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Council decides to move ahead with new police chief
April 25, 2013 Jerry Purvis   

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While the Gering City Council is still undecided about a possible law enforcement merger, they did agree it was time to hire a new police chief.

The decision to move ahead with replacing retired police chief Mel Griggs came after council members heard a proposal from Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman on how the sheriff and local police departments might work as a combined entity.

Gering City Administrator Lane Danielzuk said the police department has been running smoothly since Griggs’ retirement on Feb. 28, but a new chief needs to be hired. Currently, the city is considering candidates from within the department.

Overman told council members he was asked by the mayors of Gering, Scottsbluff and Terrytown to develop a possible plan on how the three agencies could work as one. He visited with a number of other cities in eastern Nebraska that have a similar plan.

The county sheriff in smaller counties often contracts with towns to provide law enforcement coverage. Locally, Terrytown contracts with Scottsbluff to provide for their police coverage.

“The entity we’re talking about doesn’t exist in Nebraska so far,” Overman said. “There’s no sheriff’s department that runs law enforcement for counties our size.”

Under Overman’s proposal, municipal police officers would be sworn in as sheriff deputies and would retain their current rank and seniority. The new agency would have 62 sworn officers, a reduction from the current 64. Also, both cities’ chief positions would be eliminated, along with two captain positions.

There would be four shifts with nine officers and two supervisors on duty for each shift. Overman said it would result in more officers on the street and county residents would receive 24-hour coverage instead of the current 20-hour coverage.

Overman said a combined agency would also allow for more comprehensive training of personnel. “That will become more important in 2014 when a state law goes into effect mandating 20 hours a year in additional training for all law enforcement personnel.”

Discussion of a possible Gering-Scottsbluff police merger in 2010 had Gering residents wondering whether they would receive adequate coverage when most of the crime took place in Scottsbluff, because of its size.

“We plan to put GPS in each car,” Overman said. “Any of you who want to know how many hours we’re spending in Scottsbluff or Gering; we can prove it to you.”

But the GPS proposal raised some questions from council member Larry Gibbs, who said the cost of equipping the vehicles with GPS would eat up any potential savings, especially if the merged department goes to a one officer, one car policy.

Another concern Gibbs expressed was over an item in Overman’s proposal that “cities lose control of their police departments and must trust that the sheriff (whoever he or she may be) will do a good job.”

Under state statute, anyone can run for county sheriff. But once elected, the new person has a year to pass the state law enforcement training program. Gibbs said in the future, a new sheriff might not have the professional qualifications of a police chief.

Gibbs, along with fellow members Jill McFarland and Julie Morrison, were also concerned about a salary and promotion structure that wouldn’t give Gering officers credit for their rank and seniority.
Overman’s proposal recommends Scottsbluff, Gering and Scotts Bluff County each appoint two members to form a committee to further research the potential of a law enforcement merger.

The county has already voted to appoint two representatives, but the Gering council decided to wait until they receive input from the public before proceeding. McFarland estimated that even if they decide to go ahead with the merger, it would take from 18 to 24 month to work out all the details.

In other action, Ken Mabery, superintendent of Scotts Bluff National Monument, asked the council to be a co-applicant for Nebraska Federal Lands Access Program Funds. The federal funds would be used to build and extend a pedestrian/biking lane from West Lawn Cemetery out to the Monument, which would include connecting with the Legacy of the Plains Museums.
The action was approved unanimously by the council.
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