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Proposed joint law enforcement center

As sheriff's office and police department examine sharing a building, some elected officials are wary

 

Ryan Hermens

If current state standards were applied to the Cheyenne County Jail, the 20-bed facility would be reduced to just six beds.

Fourteen months ago, a study was released examining the Sidney Police Department's current facilities. From the structure to the layout to its size, the consultants tasked with drafting the report identified safety and security concerns inherent with the building at 1715 Illinois Street.

In 1986, the police left the courthouse to make room for a probation office. Since then, the department has called a repurposed fast food restaurant home.

It was meant to serve as a temporary fix – a couple of years at most – nearly three decades ago.

At the end of January, another study was finalized. This time, the Cheyenne County Sheriff's Office and Jail were the subjects of the report.

Crowded office spaces, a lack of storage for evidence and profound limitations and deficiencies with the jail were identified. The courthouse was built a half century ago.

The two reports also contained sections identifying what new buildings could look like for the agencies, mindful of changes to law enforcement in past years – namely, the integration of technology – and also with an eye to the city's and county's future growth.

Given that both the sheriff's office and police department are looking at new buildings, the latest report examined the possibility of a joint law enforcement center. Both agencies would remain independent from the other, but they would share a roof.

Sidney Police Chief B.J. Wilkinson said the idea isn't new – it's been suggested in Cheyenne County before – but rebuffed because of politics. Any construction is going to be costly, he said, but sharing a building could help reduce overall expenses.

Sheriff John Jenson said as a county official, it's his responsibility to use tax dollars as economically and fiscally responsibly as possible. A joint law enforcement complex would do just that, he said.

Whatever path the city and county take, the decision is up to elected officials – and, in the case of a bond, likely the voters.

Last week, Sidney's mayor met with the Cheyenne County Commissioner chairman. Both expressed caution about a joint building, but also reaffirmed the process is in its infancy and numerous and essential questions remain to be answered.

'Crumbling' building

Law enforcement is largely "out of site, out of mind," Wilkinson said. Unless someone has a specific reason to visit the police station, they're not likely to just drop in.

"A lot of people don't have any idea what conditions we're working in or what the facility looks like – what the struggles are between a building that was remodeled in the '80s for temporary use and what challenges that brings to modern law enforcement," he said.

Population increases and shifts in policing have placed more demands on what it is police do, he explained.

"The needs of the business have changed, and obviously the size of staff has changed," he said. "What we need to do as police officers has changed and this building is not conducive to it."

The current facility lacks proper space to conduct cyber crime investigations or even have private conversations with victims of sexual assault.

"I mean, pick a thing that is at all sensitive, and this building is not conducive to it," he said.

Even more basic, the front façade of the building is beginning to crumble onto the sidewalk; the basement – the only place to store evidence – floods after rainstorms; lights have fallen from the ceiling; a table in the patrol room doubles as a place where evidence is processed and officers eat their lunches.

"I think we have an obligation to not only be safe and aesthetically appealing, but we are also doing code enforcement," Wilkinson said. "So we have to set an example. That's difficult to do when things are crumbling out from under you."

Regardless of what the building was used for, it's exceeded its life expectancy, he added.

'The elephant in the room'

Wilkinson said when he was hired, he was tasked with exploring a new home for the police department.

"And not just a place to land, but a place that allows us to vision what we need tomorrow, five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now," he said. "It's going to be expensive to do whatever we do, so we need to do it right the first time and we need to do it so it lasts."

The idea of a joint law enforcement center came up in an informal discussion between Wilkinson and Jenson.

"I was having a conversation with the sheriff about the obvious elephant in the room," the chief said. "And the elephant in the room is at 1715 Illinois Street. I said, 'If we were smart – you've outgrown the part of the courthouse you're in – we should do it together.'"

According to Wilkinson, Jenson said it had been talked about in the past, but the right economics and politics were not in place.

The new police chief responded to the first-term sheriff, "Maybe we can change the climate, the way people look at the needs of law enforcement in this county. Maybe we change that if we start working together."

A joint law enforcement center is rife with challenges – even more than if the buildings were constructed separately – Wilkinson admits.

"The sheriff's piece of the puzzle is huge because it involves the jail, and that cost is three to four times what ours was," he said. "We're looking at a combined cost of somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million. That's big money. It's big money at a time in our county when the school bond has failed three times."

How do you get the public's support for jails for bad guys and police stations, he asked rhetorically.

"I think no matter how we look at it, we've got some challenges ahead of us – in terms of how we would fund it, how we'd pay for it; whether we have to float a bond, whether we have to borrow money or a combination of things; whether or not we'd have to build it in phases as we accumulated funds," Wilkinson said. "I don't know how that's going to play out."

In the coming months, those questions will be debated by the city council, whatever form a new police building takes – separate, or as a law enforcement complex.

"We need to talk about where do we go from here and how do we make it work, if we could make it work," he said. "If we can't, then how do we accomplish what needs to get accomplished independent from each other."

Courthouse limitations

Besides the day-to-day activities of a law enforcement agency, the sheriff's office operates the county jail and provides security for the courthouse.

"I'm mandated to be present at court hearings and whatever is needed," Jenson said. "And when you look at the types of crimes we're getting, we're getting some very serious crimes. We've got a number of sexual assaults going through the court right now."

One of the proposed plans for a joint law enforcement complex included in the study of the sheriff's office and jail completed earlier this year calls for reconfiguring and adding onto the department's current location at the courthouse.

The expanded complex would correct deficiencies in the current judicial facilities and better allow the sheriff's department to meet its responsibility to ensure a secure and safe courthouse.

"We need it to be a safe place for the public," Jenson said.

Twenty years ago, school shootings and mall shootings had yet to make headlines.

"The one thing that has been consistent through that time is courthouse shootings," he said. "We've got to take that side serious. I want to make sure that we meet all our obligations, not only to the court but also to the personnel at the courthouse."

Like the police department, the sheriff's office is out of space.

As different offices have been shifted throughout the courthouse, or moved to another building, the sheriff's department has taken over the space. But there's no room left.

"This is how, for the last 50 years, we have handled the growth inside of the county," Jenson said. "Instead of looking at the problem head on, we've just tried to expand and take over another building – so you're paying electricity, paying rent in one case, on buildings we can consolidate into one building."

Jail operating at capacity

The age of the Cheyenne County Jail has been showing for a long time. The facility holds up to 20 inmates right now, but if any major construction were undertaken, that number would be reduced to six.

Standards have changed since the jail was constructed. A grandfather clause keeps the facility immune from conforming to the new requirements, but even replacing a cell door would void that.

"We have to be very careful in finding parts for this older jail, and it's getting to be a pretty good challenge," Jenson said.

Throughout the past 10 years, growth in the county has averaged 3.5 percent. The jail population has mirrored that upswing.

"We've reached the maximum," Jenson said. "Everyday we're at maximum capacity or awful close to maximum capacity."

On any given day, the sheriff's office is also paying other counties to house at least a handful of inmates.

Because of a lack of space to segregate males from females, women haven't been held in Cheyenne County for at least 20 years.

The jail is also unable to house anyone with mental health conerns or who needs to be kept out of the general population.

During the past seven years, Cheyenne County paid $1 million for offsite housing. That amount doesn't take into consideration the wear and tear on county vehicles used to drive as far away as central Nebraska to retrieve inmates for court hearings.

Jenson wants to ensure a new jail can meet current needs but also those of the future.

"We're trying to look 20 years down the road – you don't want to keep rebuilding this thing time and time again," he said. "That's part of what we're looking at. As society grows, as the town and county grow, obviously the law enforcement side, the sheriff's office and jail, is going to continue to grow."

The report on the current facility calls for a new jail with 48 beds. Jenson said the plans include a design that would allow it to easily be expanded to 64 beds.

"So if 20 years down the road we need an extra 20 beds, the ground floor and all of that is there," he said. "All they have to do is basically put a roof over the play pen and the interior walls. It's already designed for that."

While a 48-bed facility is probably more than the county needs today, Jenson said, inmates from elsewhere could be held there. That would allow the sheriff's office to bring in extra money the day the jail opens. As Cheyenne County's needs grow, the number of inmates from other counties would be reduced to make room.

An expanded jail would also allow the sheriff's department to offer inmates activities – such as a G.E.D. program or consistent church services and alcoholics anonymous meetings.

Right now, alcoholics anonymous and church sessions take place in the "drunk tank." But if someone is being held there, the activities are cancelled.

Beginning of a long process

Whatever route city and county elected officials decide to pursue, Jenson and Wilkinson said it's time to begin the process.

"The county and city need to sit down and decide if that's going to work with each of their respective agencies, and then decide on the next route," the sheriff said. "I think both the police department and the sheriff's office, we're out of space. We didn't need a feasibility study to tell us that, but we needed that to determine where we need to go – what size facility are we looking for and to put some real numbers with where it is we're trying to get."

It's going to be a long road, the sheriff added.

"Is it going to be a challenge?" he asked. "Absolutely I think it's going to be a challenge. Anytime you look at tax money – and everything we do in county government is off tax money – you've got to be really frugal with that money. They put us in these positions, we're elected, to make sure we do the job the best we can but to do it as cheap as we can. And I think we've done that. I think we've proven that."

Elected officials cautious

After meeting with Cheyenne County Commissioner Chairman Darrell Johnson, Sidney Mayor Mark Nienhueser said there are a lot of questions – and differences in the needs of the county versus the city.

"We're going to have to analyze as a city our thoughts around the joint facility they came up with," he said. "Is there enough there for us and whether we can wait for what appears to be a number of years down the road?"

He said the council would be discussing the police department's needs for a new building in the upcoming months.

"And we need more input from the chief and his staff now that the studies are done," the mayor added.

If a joint law enforcement facility could save taxpayer money, it should be considered, Nienheuser said.

"But there's a reality check to it in regards to there is a difference between the police department and the sheriff's department for very good reasons, in regards to how they operate," he said. "If it makes sense from a facility standpoint, we still need to be realistic in regards to a culture standpoint."

As the city prepares to begin work on next year's budget, the mayor said the city council is committed to knowing what direction it is headed on this issue by June or July.

Johnson, a former sheriff himself, said a new county jail is likely years away.

"I don't anticipate we're going to be jumping up and building a new jail and a new sheriff's office right away," he said. "First of all, it takes a lot of money we don't have."

But the need is there, he added, and it's a high priority.

"The jail needs to be replaced along with the court rooms along with the sheriff's office," Johnson said. "And that's where all the big money is going to come in. We still haven't decided how we're going to do that, or where we're going to do that, but we do not want to leave the courthouse square."

As for a joint law enforcement center, though, the commissioner said he is opposed to the idea.

"I don't think it should change over what it's been for the past 100 years," he said. "The county sheriff's office is the county sheriff, and he's the one who does a lot of different work than the police. The police don't do what the sheriff does, and the sheriff doesn't do what the police do in city limits."

The city and county should approach any new law enforcement construction separately, he said.

"I think the city ought to go build the police station, and if and when it comes time for us to think about building a jail – which is not going to be for at least a few years – we've got to seek financing and funds and all that," Johnson said.

Police chief, sheriff respond

Wilkinson said he's heard concerns about the police department and sheriff's office working under the same roof, but he doesn't share them.

"It's not like we're talking about sharing the same place in the center," he said. "We can continue to work on the missions we're charged with, but we wouldn't be sharing the same area. We'd only share things like training rooms, locker rooms, parking, break rooms."

The goal of a joint law enforcement center is to use taxpayer money responsibly, he said.

"Is it necessary to be in the same facility?" he asked. "No. But if both our buildings are falling apart, we have an obligation to spend the dollars once and wisely – instead of spending it twice because our uniforms are different colors."

Jenson said, indeed, the two agencies have separate tasks, but a shared building wouldn't affect that.

"I think we have a good working relationship with all the law enforcement agencies, and I work very hard to keep that and to do that, but at the same time, we each have our own responsibilities," he said.

"The chief and I have talked since Day 1 about making sure it's smart money. I understand there have been differences in the past, but as far as I'm concerned, that's the past."

KEY FINDINGS – POLICE DEPARTMENT

Police department facility study key findings:

There is evidence that concrete walkways are deteriorating.

Handicapped accessibility is marginal.

All patrol functions are located in a single room.

Command staff offices are immediately accessible from public lobby.

No ability to separate groups of people in public areas – such as victims, witnesses and potential suspects.

Lack of storage.

From the report

"There is little ability to do operational planning in the station since discussion in any of the offices can be heard in the corridor and lobby."

­– Taken from a report authored by an independent

consultant team, released in February 2014

KEY FINDINGS – SHERIFF'S OFFICE & JAIL

County sheriff's office and jail facilities study key findings:

Jail

No separate secure entrance to bring arrestees into the jail.

Lack of adequate control center.

Limited separation and classification capability.

No suitable space for housing females, high-risk inmates or inmates with special needs who must be housed separately from the general population.

Inadequate intake and release area.

No secure visiting area.

Lack of adequate administrative space and public lobby and waiting area.

From the report

"The existing jail, in addition to not being able to accommodate the county's existing or future bed capacity needs, has a number of significant deficiencies that pose risks and potential liabilities for Cheyenne County that should be addressed."

Sheriff's Office

The office is not handicapped accessible.

There is no lobby or waiting area for citizens arriving to conduct business with the sheriff.

Ryan Hermens

The Sidney Police Department building's former tenant was a Tastee Freez.

There is no appropriate private space or interview room for victims, witnesses or suspects.

Storage space for armory equipment and supplies is inadequate.

Appropriate types and amounts of space for secure evidence processing and storage is not available.

No staff support spaces – lockers, showers or break areas – are available.

From the report

"The current layout of space creates significant safety and security concerns with potential for cross-traffic of inmates, visitors, witnesses, suspects and law enforcement staff through the administrative area of the sheriff's office."

­– Taken from a report authored by an independent

consultant team, released in January 2015

 

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