Thurston County Sheriff Shelly Perez says the last thing she wanted was to remain silent when a former deputy on her staff was accused of public indecency.
An Omaha World-Herald story published on Oct. 30 shed light on potential reporting gaps in the Nebraska law enforcement community when officers resign related to possible crimes or ethics violations that may allow credentials to remain active and jobs to be taken by offending officers when arguably they shouldn’t be.
Perez said it’s not quite that simple, though.
A local example was used to shed light on potentially poor reporting standards by the state’s largest newspaper. The story explained the case of deputy Nick Carlson, who resigned from the Thurston County sheriff’s office during the summer of 2016 to take a job on the Fremont Police Department.
He was accused of exposing himself to a worker at a golf course in Wakefield in early June of that year while still working as an employee of Thurston County.
A few months later, the incident was investigated by the Nebraska State Patrol and Carlson eventually pled no contest to public indecency in February 2017 and was fined $750 for the misdemeanor in Wayne County court.
Shortly before charges were filed in January, he was asked to resign by the Fremont Police Department in December 2016 when that agency learned of the allegations under investigation against him.
According to the World-Herald story, the State Crime Commission lacks the ability to demand to know why an officer might have left a job, leaving open the possibility that a cop might be rehired somewhere else before being brought to justice.
Perez agrees that’s not a good thing. She says the tools for reporting questionable incidents aren’t enough and don’t fit every situation. They also often run counter to the standards employers are held to in how they treat current or former employees who could sue for having their reputations tarnished.
“I honestly would welcome the laws to change so we can offer this information. We’re really not allowed to say they were a bad employee,” Perez said.
Perez declined to comment when contacted by the World-Herald for its story in keeping with advisement from former Thurston County attorney, Lori Ubbinga. That advice is often given and heeded by the heads of departments to avoid legal — and potentially expensive — backlash from departing employees.
In the case of deputy Carlson, he had turned in his resignation a few weeks before the incident and was in his final days of working for Thurston County when it took place.
Perez said “rumors were swirling” that something inappropriate regarding one of her deputies may have taken place in neighboring Wayne County, so she performed an internal department investigation and sought to find out if a crime might have taken place.
Witnesses she interviewed expressed reluctance to pursue an actual case at the time, Perez said, but the rumors alone were enough to undermine Carlson’s efficiency as a deputy and he left the staff early.
So-called change in-status forms are required by law enforcement agencies to be filed with the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center in Grand Island when officers move on for any reason. The forms ask general questions, such as whether or not the officer left because they were asked to resign by the agency. In the case of Carlson, Perez did not indicate that as a result of the fact that he decided to take another job before the incident had taken place and the internal investigation was inconclusive without a pending case.
Perez acknowledges that she failed to fill out the required report in the suggested seven-day window after an employee leaves. Instead, she caught the mistake and filed the form on July 27 — about five weeks after Carlson had started his new job in Fremont on June 20.
“The department was in disarray, so doing his change of status was the last thing on my mind, and it ended up being a complete oversight,” Perez said.
On the form, she marked that he had resigned to take a position at another law enforcement agency.
Had there been an active investigation by Wayne County or the Nebraska State Patrol at the time, Perez said she would have handled the form differently.
“It would have changed everything,” Perez said.
Instead, Carlson parted ways and it wasn’t for another few months — in September — that the State Patrol began an investigation. Perez said she wasn’t even aware that he had plead no contest to a charge in early February until well afterwards.
“I probably heard about it in April or May,” Perez said.
Carlson now faces more allegations in Dodge County of exposing himself to a female Pump and Pantry clerk in
The Governor’s Office and Crime Commission have been working together on a fix for these holes in the system and legislation is expected to emerge as result.
Perez said she did not intend to react to the story given that she believed she had done a proper internal investigation and that revealing what were unsubstantiated rumors to another agency ran counter to legal advice she had been given. A backlash of negative comments about how she and her team handled the matter has prompted her to respond.
“I welcome the law to change so we can disclose these types of behaviors in law enforcement officers. Until then, I would hope that before anyone attacks someone’s credibility they would make sure they have all the accurate information,” Perez said.