Law enforcement service spanning four decades and 36 years was propperly honored on Saturday as Jim Gress, the longest serving sheriff in Otoe County history, was recognized at an open house at the Nebraska City Museum of Firefighting.
Gress began his service as sheriff in 1983 and led an organization of three deputies, an office manager and four dispatchers.
Gress recalls that the deputies worked 72 hours per week without overtime and said he worked every other weekend to provide relief for the deputies.
The United States Department of Labor stepped in and suggested that the county either hire more deputies or pay overtime. The current sheriff, Colin Caudill, has a staff of 14 deputies, a number which includes the chief deputy, the jail administrator and the jail supervisor.
The county also employs three part time deputies that can help the organization in times of illness, injury or other absence.
Former sheriff Gress said today’s number may seem like a lot to some folks, but noted that the larger number of deputies is an acknowledgement of the many hours required to provide adequate law enforcement coverage in the county, a geographic area of 619 square miles.
The deputies patrol county roads and highways. In addition, they perform tasks in service to the courts, transport inmates to other jail facilities, oversee the jail here and provide law enforcement for the city of Syracuse while also serving as a cooperating agency for coverage of all of Otoe County’s communities.
As the years have gone by, Gress said the county witnessed a rise in crime attributable in part to the fact that there are new ways to commit crime as criminals employ cell phones and computers and their accompanying applications to commit crimes never before possible.
Continued efforts to combat illegal drugs contributed to the rise in crime as well.
“We have been fighting that drug war forever,” Gress said.
Where there has been invention of crime, there has also been adaptation.
Back in 1983, Gress said marijuana was the major drug keeping deputies busy in the county.
Meth labs overtook the growth and harvesting of marijuana as the major concern and Gress said deputies spent many hours tracking down and disrupting the meth labs. Gress said battling meth labs involved securing anhydrous ammonia tanks and, with the help of state legislators, helping to limit the amount of over-the-counter medicine which makes the manufacture process possible.
Unfortunately, the criminals adjusted again by bringing meth into the community instead of manufacturing it here.
Back at the jail, both practices and facilities have changed quite a bit since 1983.
At the start of Gress’ tenure as sheriff, the jail was housed in the basement of the courthouse.
Gress said there were times that the jail sat empty with the doors open.
As crime escalated, those cells were filled and the staffing required to oversee them increased.
The current Otoe County jail was constructed by the county to assure that the county was detaining its inmates properly and it was mandated that the county staff the jail with a jailer on every shift and have a female jailer present whenever there were female inmates.
Possibly the most impressive change in law enforcement over the years has been the cultivation and growth of a cooperative spirit between the local, county and state law enforcement groups.
“When I became sheriff, I wanted a working relationship with all law enforcement officers,” Gress said.
The former sheriff said that cooperation was evidenced during the Nebraska City schools lock down of 2018.
Thanks to new radios, the agencies responding to the incident were communicating freely about position, location and strategy.
Gress said seeing that cooperation was very satisfying.
From battling crime to adjusting and adapting the agency and much more, Gress saw a lot as sheriff.
His decision to retire was one of timing. Gress told open house attendees that he felt the time was right to step away after lengthy service.
What’s he doing with his retirement? Although Gress has been asked to return to  the sheriff’s department in a more limited role, for now, he says he’s happy staying at home and working on projects there.
Gress is living in one of four houses that he has constructed over the years. And he says he has some ideas for renovation of the house.
While Gress renovates, the new sheriff has the charge of maintaining and improving the department.
Sheriff Caudill expressed his appreciation for the team of law enforcement professionals which he inherited from the out-going sheriff.
“I like the department. I like the experience that we have,” Caudill said, adding that he feels Otoe County has some of the best sheriff deputies in the state of Nebraska.
Coming into the sheriff’s job has been made somewhat easier because of the long service of Gress.
Each sheriff has a specific way to do things and, had it not been for the former sheriff’s long service, deputies might be trying do adjust to new practices after having done that once or twice or more already in their career.
“We haven’t had that, so we have been fortunate,” said Caudill. “We have had the consistency of having one sheriff.”
Working closely with Gress for over a decade helped Caudill to gain a better understanding of county business as well and that experience is helping the county going forward.
“I am really excited for the way we are heading,” Caudill said. “I want to be part of a really good team and that’s what it’s all about.”