Efforts to add police officers to the Lincoln Police Department are being stymied in part by the loss of officers recruited to the Omaha Police Department, police and city officials said.
In the last two years, the state's largest law enforcement agency hired away 11 Lincoln police officers just as city officials here approved adding about a dozen officers to help keep up with city growth.
"It just seems like we never gain any ground,” Lincoln Police Union President Chris Milisits said last week.
"You take one step forward and two steps backward."
Exit interviews with the officers didn't pinpoint one reason for the departures, Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister said.
His predecessors dealt with the same trend, he said. But Milisits called the size of the recent departures of certified, experienced officers troubling.
Milisits, who will soon begin negotiating the next collective bargaining agreement, believes officers who are taking their careers east see Omaha's police salary and benefits packages as more lucrative.
The rookie salary — about $47,000 — is lower in Omaha than in Lincoln, but Lincoln officers leaving to join OPD start at a comparable rate to their pay here, Milisits said.
And the paychecks of Omaha officers go further, considering they pay less in health insurance premiums, Milisits said.
Omaha's been taking large classes of law enforcement veterans in its push to get to 900 officers by this year.
Lincoln's department has 345 officers, just three officers below its authorized strength level.
Lincoln has 1.22 officers for every 1,000 residents, Milisits said. Omaha's ratio is closer to two officers for every 1,000 residents.
"We'd have to hire 100 new officers tomorrow to even come close to that (ratio)," he said.
Many of those Lincoln officers who left had ties to or were already living in the Omaha metro area, Bliemeister said. Lincoln doesn't have residency requirements for its police force.
The chief in October expressed concern to Lincoln business leaders about the trend and overall staffing levels, pointing out the Omaha Police Department was calling and emailing his officers at work.
"Every single one of our agencies is competing for these same outstanding community servants," the chief said in an interview last week.
Milisits recalls that shortly after he started patrolling on his own, the officer who had just finished training him took a job with the Omaha Police Department.
In his 23 years on the force, Milisits can't remember a time when an Omaha police officer left to join Lincoln's department, he said.
The two departments have different structures. Lincoln officers investigate most of their cases start to finish, while Omaha patrol officers turn over investigative efforts.
Lincoln's structure gives officers ownership of their calls, Bliemeister said.
But Milisits believes the increasing workload here and opportunities to specialize in Omaha can make the jump between departments attractive.
Bliemeister said the city is somewhat bound by its collective bargaining agreement, but the department has taken measures to address the situation.
The department has reinstituted 12-hour shifts on two of its geographic teams so younger patrol officers can have more time off and time off that aligns with weekends, the chief said.
At a mayoral candidate debate last week, Councilwoman Leirion Gaylor Baird raised the issue of officer retention when asked about how the city should address the growing number of mental health calls.
“We ask our officers to do many things, and they really do an amazing job with their resources," the Democratic candidate said.
But in an interview last week, Gaylor Baird said police staffing and retention need to continue to be examined together to understand how to stem retention issues.
"We want them to stay here," said Gaylor Baird, who's been endorsed by the police union.
Her Republican opponent, Cyndi Lamm, while addressing the same debate question, agreed that appropriate police staffing is a priority.
Hiring for the next Lincoln police recruit academy begins in May.