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How a Neb. police department maintains its staffing levels with a community-first mindset

“Community policing has been part of our philosophy. It’s not a program we do. It’s just been who we are,” Papillion’s mayor said

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The city makes a concerted effort to maintain Papillion’s small-town culture, sense of community, reputation and service level.


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By Jessie O’Brien

Unlike many other organizations, Nebraska’s Papillion Police Department came out of the 2020 turmoil relatively unscathed. Residents stayed supportive of PPD, community trust didn’t waver and their department remained mostly staffed.

Every few years, the City of Papillion conducts The National Community Survey (The NCS) by Polco, an assessment that measures resident opinions about their city and government services. Papillion scored above the national benchmarks on nearly all safety-related measurements. Over 95% of residents said they feel safe in Papillion and 93% approve of the city’s police and sheriff services.

So, how did they do it?

Community Policing and Officer-Resident Relationships

The city of around 25,000 makes a concerted effort to maintain Papillion’s small-town culture, sense of community, reputation and service level. A lot of this work is done through community policing.

“Community policing has been part of our philosophy. It’s not a program we do. It’s just been who we are,” said Mayor David Black.

Community policing is the strategy that fosters relationships between residents and police. It’s more about problem-solving, partnerships and collaboration than handing out tickets.

Papillion police officers start building relationships with young residents while they are still in grade school. The city was an early adopter of school resource officers, sworn police who work in a school setting, and also continued with the DARE drug resistance program. Black says the program evolved into teaching kids how to make good decisions, rather than its previous focus solely on drugs. The department also runs a kids’ police academy camp and is the liaison to the mayor’s youth council, a city council-like group for students.

“Kids can build a real personal relationship with police officers from sixth grade through high school. [Kids learn that] police are people, it’s not a law just an enforcement officer,” Black said. “That’s huge. You look nationally at what’s going on in policing and distrust and polarization – it’s because people don’t know each other. They don’t trust each other.”

The police department is involved in other aspects of the community as well, such as health and wellness events like community 5K and 10K runs. Black says officers are required to be out in the community in addition to their normal police work.

“When something is going on at the schools, the police department is there supporting it. When something’s happening at the chamber, they’re supporting it. When something’s happening in the rec department, they’re there to support it,” he said.

Maintaining Community Culture Amidst Growth

Black says one concern is, as the city grows, new residents may not have that natural connection to Papillion’s culture and sense of community. Papillion has grown nearly 30% since 2000 and 70% faster than other communities its size.

Until recently, most PPD officers were born and raised in Papillion, so the sense of culture and mission was organic. That’s not always the case now. Today, the city has to be more purposeful in teaching those values, Black says.

Papillion’s NCS results showed that job satisfaction and engagement were higher for employees who grew up in Papillion.

“As I dove into it, it really made sense because a lot of what we’re talking about is the community,” he said. “How do you build community? How do you build trust? Well, if you grew up in that, it’s intuitive to you.”

Now during the employee onboarding process, the city and the PPD teach what community means. They discuss the city’s history and traditions. They are more purposeful and regularly reinforce what it means to be a part of a community as Papillion grows.

Community Relationships Help The Department Stay Staffed

The high resident approval rate, community connection and deep effort to maintain a sense of community in Papillion helped the department maintain its staff members. Black has seen the fruits of these efforts firsthand.

Black said they recently hired a local woman who was influenced by her school’s DARE officers. They stayed in touch and today she is a Papillion police officer.

“That connection is huge and we start at that sixth-grade level,” Black said. “That’s been going on for 25-plus years.”

About the author
Jessie O’Brien is the head copywriter at Polco, a community engagement and data analytics company for local government organizations. Polco helps law enforcement agencies build strong relationships with residents through engagement. Solid community relationships mean agencies can weather tough times with more resilience.