Ricketts orders review of policies, leadership at Nebraska State Patrol
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts addresses the media as state human resources officer Jason Jackson, right, listens, during a press conference Friday at Nebraska State Patrol headquarters where he ordered a review of policies and leadership in the patrol.
AMBER BAESLER/LINCOLN JOURNAL STAR VIA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts on Friday ordered a review of “policies, procedures and leadership” at the Nebraska State Patrol in response to recent allegations of impropriety and mismanagement at the agency.
At a hurriedly called press conference outside patrol headquarters, Ricketts said that Col. Brad Rice will remain as the agency’s superintendent as a review of the agency is conducted by Jason Jackson, the state’s chief human resources officer.
Jackson has a background of investigating allegations of mismanagement while in the Navy, including one case in which he said an officer was demoted.
The governor said he still has faith in Rice but is looking for ways to improve and maintain public confidence in the agency.
“We have an obligation to make sure we have 100 percent confidence in the State Patrol,” Ricketts said.
He cited “recent concerns raised” about the patrol, including a World-Herald report last Sunday about an internal investigation into a high-speed chase in October that resulted in the death of a fleeing driver.
In that story, an internal investigator and others questioned why the narrative of what caused the crash changed, from a tactical maneuver by the trooper to bump the car into a spin to a sudden turn by the fleeing driver.
Ricketts also mentioned a labor grievance, filed Monday by the state troopers union, that states that the warranties on several bulletproof vests were allowed to expire, jeopardizing the safety of troopers and increasing liability for taxpayers.
There have been other “anecdotal” complaints about the patrol and its leadership, he added.
“How can we get ahead of these matters so they don’t become a concern?”
Rice, who was appointed by Ricketts to the patrol’s top job two years ago, did not attend the press conference. When asked about that, Ricketts said the announcement was about the review being launched by Jackson rather than about Rice.
Jackson stressed that he was conducting a review of leadership and operations, not a “criminal investigation.” The probe could take several weeks, he said.
Gary Young, an attorney for the state troopers union, said Friday that he was encouraged that the governor was ordering a review of the agency, which has a yearly budget of about $85 million and 437 sworn officers.
“We do get a lot of feedback from members of (the State Troopers Association of Nebraska) that morale is very low,” Young said. “We’re hopeful that we’re going to get a good look at these issues and try to get some of these matters resolved.”
The governor noted that the trooper involved in the fatal high-speed chase near Gordon had been cleared by a grand jury, but said concerns have been raised about the handling of the internal investigation.
The driver of the fleeing car, Antoine LaDeaux, was killed when his car rolled while being chased by a state trooper.
Initially the trooper said three times that he had performed a maneuver called a “tactical intervention” to bump the car into a spin to end the chase.
But only hours later, the story changed, and some within the State Patrol suspect that it was changed to avoid additional scrutiny about the fatal crash.
Rice, who reinstated the trooper to regular duty a few days after the incident, told The World-Herald that the troopers’ actions were justified.
A Sheridan County grand jury ruled that LaDeaux, not State Trooper Tim Flick, caused the fatal accident, despite conflicting stories about the cause presented by patrol investigators and leaders.
Rice denied that there was any pressure on the internal investigator to declare the incident an accident rather than a crash precipitated by one of his troopers.
The now-retired head of the patrol’s internal affairs unit, Lt. Dennis Leonard, said that he felt pressure was exerted by higher-ups to create a false narrative and wrote in an email that he had lost faith in the patrol’s ability to investigate its own personnel.
Rice has spent nearly 30 years with the patrol but was working as Sarpy County’s 911 center manager in 2015 when Ricketts tapped him to lead the agency.
There have been controversies surrounding Rice before and after he took the patrol’s top job.
Rice, a Christian known for opening staff meetings with prayer, launched a community outreach program that included church attendance by troopers. It generated friction within the patrol.
Also in 2015, a veteran trooper, Todd Steckelberg, filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Rice had improperly passed him over for a new assignment and retaliated against him for filing internal complaints. The lawsuit was dismissed.