The Legislature’s Urban Affairs Committee heard three hours of testimony on a police standards bill Friday afternoon, but the hearing ended abruptly when the chairman announced someone in the room had been exposed to COVID-19.
Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner had just sat down to testify when Chairman Justin Wayne announced the hearing was canceled, but would accept emailed testimony until Monday.
The bill (LB1222), for which Wayne sought suspension of the rules last week to introduce outside the regulation period, would require every city that employs full-time police officers to appoint a Citizen Police Oversight Board to monitor, investigate and evaluate police standards and practices.
According to the Nebraska Crime Commission, 106 cities or villages employ full-time police officers, Wayne said, but many would have fewer police than those on the proposed boards.
The boards would have seven members of the public appointed by the mayor with approval of the city council. Board members would be prohibited from serving on the board if they are or previously have been affiliated with any law enforcement agency, department or office of that city or county.
Many of those testifying in favor of the bill told the committee about police brutality in both Lincoln and Omaha during recent Black Lives Matter protests.
A number of them also said although the bill was a good first step, it was not enough.
Most of those in opposition were police chiefs, police union officials and mayors. Some were concerned such a board could compromise active police investigations, or officers’ names and other information could be released early in an investigation, endangering officers or their families.
Victim-advocacy groups have raised concerns about the sensitivity of some documents that could be made public by an oversight board during an assault investigation, for example.
Lincoln and Omaha police said their departments both have a form of citizen police advisory or complaint review boards, but Wayne said those boards are more advisory than independent oversight.
“There are a just lot of technical issues that we are going to continue to work through here,” Wayne said. “The bill is far from perfect. I know there’s very little time remaining in the session.”
But he wanted to hear from both sides, he said, because this may turn into a broader bill or bills going into next year. Wayne said many of those protesting since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police have cried out for a wide variety of police reforms.
Michaela Chambers, great-niece of Sen. Ernie Chambers, said that last Saturday, she was arrested and taken to a jail cell where she sat with a transient woman, who was there because of a domestic abuse charge.
“That was my gift for peacefully demonstrating that black lives matter,” she said.
While she is a supporter of the bill, she said it was a “slap in the face” to those who were arrested, and not enough.
“I believe that this is the tip of the iceberg and I believe that you, as our elected officials, can do and should do more for us to protect us as your citizens, to allow us to have our right to freedom of speech and for that right to not be taken away by the brutality and the aggression shown by sworn officers who made an oath to protect us as citizens.”
Bianca Swift, a university student and a member of the recently created policy committee of Lincoln’s Malone Center, said she agreed that while the bill is not enough, it is most certainly a step in the right direction.
Every good system needs checks and balances, Swift said. The state’s police forces must answer to someone other than themselves. At a two-hour police-accountability meeting recently at the Malone Center, she said, “the injustices that so many community members face made my skin crawl.
“It becomes interesting to me, then, how there does not seem to be a large record of discrimination or harm done within the (Lincoln Police Department) when it’s so evident at those meetings.”
Jeannette Eileen Jones-Bazansky said that for well more than a century, the use of excessive force by law enforcement in matters involving Black people has created an environment of distrust and anxiety between police and the communities they have sworn to protect and serve.
On the opponents’ side, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert testified that she and the police department there are listening and responding to demands for police reform and revising police department policy, requiring additional training and strengthening the process for citizen complaints.
But the bill would not result in meaningful change, she said. This month she changed a policy so that citizens can make complaints directly to the Citizen Complaint Review Board and the board will now produce an annual report to the public.
She said Omaha does not get a lot of complaints filed against its officers. Last year, the board had only had three complaints to review and this year five.
Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister said the bill is well-intentioned, and LPD embraces the spotlight of accountability on its actions. But the bill’s flaws include a disregard for existing local oversight, threats to the integrity of ongoing investigations, the expense of an unfunded mandate and a lack of evidence the measure would be effective.
The bill would inhibit the cooperation of witnesses, Bliemeister said, jeopardize a person’s right to a fair trial and undermine public trust with the release of personal details provided by victims. With Lincoln’s existing board, the names of complainants and officers remain confidential.
Sen. Sue Crawford asked about any written procedures LPD has for addressing protests and the use of rubber bullets and tear gas.
Police are trained how to respond when protests devolve into criminal acts of property damage or violence, Bliemeister said.
“The Lincoln Police Department and every member of our agency supports the right to express your First Amendment rights. We’re going to do that whether you agree or disagree with our actions, and do our very best to make that safe environment,” he said.
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