Controversy erupts in Legislature over Chambers' remarks on police

March 26, 2015, 5:42 a.m. ·

Sen. Ernie Chambers speaks as Sen. Beau McCoy listens (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Listen To This Story

The Nebraska Legislature erupted in controversy Thursday over remarks Sen. Ernie Chambers made about police.

Chambers made his remarks at a hearing last week on a proposal by Sen. Tommy Garrett to allow people to carry concealed guns in bars and restaurants. At one point, Chambers asked what people are afraid of, and Garrett mentioned ISIS – the so-called Islamic State. Chambers, who is black, said the police are his ISIS. "If I were going to do something -- but I’m not a man of violence -- I wouldn’t go to Syria. I wouldn’t go to Iraq. I wouldn’t go to Afghanistan. I wouldn’t go to Yemen. I wouldn’t go to Tunisia. I wouldn’t go to Lebanon. I wouldn’t go to Jordan. I would do it right here. Nobody from ISIS ever terrorized us as a people as the police do daily. And they get away with it," Chambers declared.

For a complete transcript of the hearing at which Chambers made his original remarks, click here. The remarks are on pages 26-29.

During those remarks last week, Chambers talked about a recent police shooting of an unarmed man in Omaha, telling Garrett that officials had justified it saying the police felt threatened. "If I was going to carry a weapon, it wouldn’t be against you. It wouldn’t be against these people who come here that I might have a dispute with. Mine would be for the police. And if I carried a gun, I’d want to shoot him first and ask questions later like they say a cop ought to do," he said.

Sen. Beau McCoy took to the floor of the Legislature Wednesday to demand Chambers apologize. Chambers refused, saying even children in his district realize he wasn’t advocating shooting police. McCoy continued his criticism Thursday.

"I believe this has crossed the line where we are endangering lives of those who wear a uniform to protect us. How can we expect a criminal – a potential criminal – who might want to commit a gun crime or any kind of crime against law enforcement, to read a transcript and try to understand context or hyperbole? Words matter. And Sen. Chambers said these words," declared McCoy.

McCoy cited condemnations of Chambers’ remarks from Gov. Pete Ricketts, Attorney General Doug Peterson, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer.

Many senators rose to agree with McCoy. Among them was Sen. Lydia Brasch. "It is not right to compare police to ISIS, and what has happened – the horror internationally, the threat we have to our people. And also it is disrespect to those who hve pledged their lives to carry out those very laws that we enact in this chamber," she said.

Sen. David Schnoor of Wahoo went further. "I’m demanding accountability. So my request to you, Sen. Chambers, is I’m asking for your resignation, effective close of business today. Now you can sit there and laugh all you want, because that’s what you do. You make a mockery of everybody in here. You make a mockery of the Senate. You make a mockery of someone’s Christian beliefs. But I along with Sen. McCoy am going to take a stand," Schnoor said.

Chambers, with 40 years’ experience the longest-serving member of the Legislature in the state’s history, refused the request by Schnoor, who was appointed last December. "I’m not going to leave here. I can tell Sen. Schnoor I’m not going to resign. And he ought to stay here a little longer and learn something before he pops up and pops off," Chambers said.

At one point during the debate, Chambers left the floor to deal with what he sarcastically said was a "brave white guy" yelling at his aide in his office. Four state troopers responded, but a spokeswoman said the man had left by the time they arrived.

As debate continued on the floor, not everyone condemned Chambers. Sen. Dave Bloomfield framed the question as a matter of free speech. "What a wonderful opportunity we have to pile onto Sen. Chambers. What a wonderful opportunity we have to defend the right of free speech. I do not condone what Sen. Chambers said. Too many people have died fighting for the right of him to be able to say it. We all have the right to say what we want," he said.

And Sen. Galen Hadley, speaker of the Legislature, described the debate this way. "I’m going to give you a quote from Voltaire: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ And what we’re doing here today is basically doing that," Hadley said.

For his part, the 77-year old Chambers remained defiant, accusing his critics of attacking him as a mob, while being unwilling to confront him as individuals. "That’s what the problem is. I’m not afraid and you are. Kill my bill for Sen. Davis -- kill every bill that I’ve got. Do the worst you can do and I will show you it is nothing. There’s nothing you can do to me to stop me from doing and saying what I think needs to be said! Kill every one of them. But I bet not one of you will put your hands on me," he said.

After two hours of debate, lawmakers moved on to the next item of business: a bill by Chambers to keep government agencies from coming onto private land to kill prairie dogs. Lawmakers rejected two motions by Sen. Al Davis that would have killed the bill. They then adjourned for a long weekend without taking a final vote.