10/10/2007

Some small towns are turning in their badges

By John Ferak
The Omaha World-Herald, Neb. 

SYRACUSE, Neb. — When children ride the bus or walk to school here, a familiar face inside a police cruiser monitors their safety and behavior.

And late at night, Police Chief Jerry Railsback slowly drives the brick-paved downtown business district with a careful eye. He's ready, if necessary, to shine his spotlight on the tavern windows as a friendly warning to folks that it's time to close up and go home.

But this month will be last call for the Syracuse Police Department. The City Council voted last week to disband the three-officer department, effective in November.

Railsback, Officer Jeff Holland and part-time Officer Don Martin will be out of jobs in a few weeks. Syracuse has agreed to pay the Otoe County Sheriff's Office $160,000 annually to handle law enforcement duties in the growing town of about 2,000.

The three-year agreement will come up for final approval Tuesday at the Otoe County Board meeting.

Like soda fountains and barber shops, small-town police forces are a dying breed. About a dozen Nebraska communities have dissolved their departments since the 1990s, according to the Nebraska Crime Commission.

"It's hard in a small town to have a one- or two-person police department who can always be there," said Weeping Water City Clerk Kay Gerdes. "Small towns can't be competitive with salaries and maintain a force. It's difficult to control costs. It's also training, it's vehicles, it's weapons, uniforms and insurance."

More than 40 Syracuse residents packed City Hall for a meeting last month. The dozen audience members who spoke up voiced their opposition to eliminating the Police Department.

Some folks question the logic of abolishing the police force when Syracuse is experiencing its biggest growth spurt in a half-century. Nestled at the crossroads of two highways, Syracuse sits 33 miles from Lincoln, 17 miles from Nebraska City and 50 miles from Omaha.

"I do feel our community is growing, and this may not be the perfect time to make this change," said Judy Hespen, owner of a downtown floral shop.

"The personal touch of the small-town police is something we will miss. These officers know us. We know them. They have been here a long time. They are a part of our community."

Railsback and Holland have both worked for the Syracuse department for the past 15 years, after working for other police forces. Syracuse hired Martin two years ago as part-time help. Martin has 46 years in police work, having retired twice before.

"It seems odd that we would be growing and losing something that seems so vital," said Dan Nannen, owner of AJ's Coffee House in Syracuse.

"A change like this is pretty big for Syracuse," Nannen said. "A city can lose (its) identity if you don't have a police department. Instead of being the town of Syracuse, we could just become a suburb of Lincoln or a suburb of Nebraska City or a part of Otoe County."

Syracuse Mayor Ray Umbarger defends his push to abolish the Police Department. He expects police protection to improve, not suffer, under the county's direction.

Umbarger, 83, rattled off a list of problems he has encountered during his 11 years as mayor. Unscheduled vacation days and sick leave often created scheduling conflicts and gaps in police coverage, he said.

The mayor said other factors behind his decision involved personnel issues that he would not discuss publicly.

"I am not going to sit here and run down the officers we've had," Umbarger said. "With Otoe County, I think we will get more coverage than what we had and more of them. Do you want police patrols or law enforcement? With 2.5 full-time officers, you can't cover the town all the time."

Another southeast Nebraska community plans to closely monitor Syracuse's transition over the next year.

Several months ago, Auburn discussed the idea of dissolving its six-officer police force. For the time being, both the Auburn Police Department and the Nemaha County Sheriff's Office will continue to operate separate agencies in the county seat.

"It does make sense in theory and efficiency to combine services, but we didn't see a huge dollar savings," Auburn Mayor Bob Engles said.

"Right now, it's on hold, but we are going to continue to take a look at this, and I would not be surprised if a lot of cities and counties took a look at this. All governments, counties and schools need to look at common areas to decrease their financial burden."

Copyright 2007 Omaha World - Herald

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