LINCOLN — Lingering vacancies in the ranks of the Nebraska State Patrol and anger over what many of them considered an unjust firing last year prompted the troopers union Thursday to endorse Bob Krist for governor.
“Our state troopers work hard in a dangerous, demanding job,” said Brian Petersen, president of the State Troopers Association of Nebraska. “They deserve leadership that is accountable and responsible, not a governor who passes the buck and tries to place the blame on rank and file.”
The same union endorsed Gov. Pete Ricketts four years ago when he was the Republican nominee for the post. The association president announced this year’s endorsement at a State Capitol press conference.
Petersen, who is a sergeant in the patrol, expressed deep concern about staffing shortages that have gone on for years. The agency’s efforts to recruit more troopers haven’t kept pace with the number of those retiring .
On occasion, Petersen said, there can be “minimal staffing” on road patrol.
“Nebraska needs to have more authorized strength of troopers out there in patrol cars protecting the citizens and monitoring the highways,” he said.
Matthew Trail, spokesman for the governor’s campaign, referred questions about the union’s criticism to patrol officials. But he said the Democratic challenger hit “a new low” by arguing that Ricketts was using more troopers for personal protection than the patrol deems necessary.
Krist, when asked what he would do to address hiring shortages, said he would start by cutting the number of troopers assigned to the governor’s protection detail.
“I think there’s way too many folks trying to walk around the governor and make sure that nobody takes a swipe at him,” Krist said. “I think that’s an abuse of power.”
The patrol currently employs 424 uniformed officers, which is 60 short of full strength, said Cody Thomas, the patrol’s spokesman.
A maximum of eight officers are authorized for executive protection, and Ricketts currently has seven, Thomas said. Since Ricketts took office in 2015, no more than eight troopers have been assigned to the detail, he said.
But in past administrations, as many as 12 troopers have been assigned to the governor, Thomas said.
When the numbers were shared later with Krist, the state senator and retired Air Force pilot said he still thinks that too many troopers are assigned “based on my military and personnel security background.”
The current shortages can be traced to three times between 2009 and 2013 when state budgetary constraints led to no recruitment, Thomas said. But the patrol has taken a number of steps to catch up, including holding two recruitment camps each year instead of one.
The agency will add 14 new officers on Oct. 26, Thomas said, and the next camp will start Jan. 7. In addition, starting next year, the agency will pay recruits $21 per hour, up from $16.58. When they graduate, the new troopers will start at $22.16 per hour, which translates to a base pay of about $46,000 per year.
The governor also lost the union’s support over his handling of personnel after questions were raised about how the agency conducted an internal affairs investigation of a fatal high-speed chase in 2016.
Evidence of interference in the investigation prompted the governor to fire Col. Brad Rice, the agency’s top commander, in 2017. But the fallout continued months later when Rice’s replacement, Col. John Bolduc, fired the trooper involved in the pursuit. Bolduc also took disciplinary action against several other troopers and higher-ranked officers who were involved in the probe of the fatal chase and another questionable internal investigation.
Tim Flick of Chadron, a decorated 20-year trooper who was pursuing the driver killed in the chase, is going through an arbitration process in an effort to win back his job. Misdemeanor criminal charges filed against Flick in connection with the crash were dismissed earlier this year, and he previously had been cleared by a grand jury.
Petersen said Thursday that he could not recall when the troopers association last endorsed a Democratic candidate for governor.
He said he can only hope that the decision to endorse Krist does not lead to problems as the association enters into negotiations with the Governor’s Office on a new two-year labor contract.