Nebraska Police, Attorneys Offer 'More Accurate Picture' of Law Enforcement

Oct. 22, 2020, noon ·

Clockwise from top left: Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, LaVista Police Chief Bob Lausten, U.S. Attorney Joe Kelly, Omaha Deputy Police Chief Ken Kanger, Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner, Nebraska State Patrol Supt. John Bolduc. (Becca Costello, NET News)

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U.S. police departments are under increased scrutiny this year after several videos of officers across the country brutalizing or killing civilians went viral, sparking widespread protests and outcry about police accountability.

Joe Kelly, U.S. Attorney for the District of Nebraska, spoke out this week alongside 11 other state and local law enforcement officials about the difficulties of police work, saying they wanted to contextualize recent high profile stories of violent behavior by officers.

"The acts of one law enforcement officer responsible for a terrible or tragic incident is often imputed to all law enforcement in this nation," Kelly said. "That result leads to an inaccurate picture of law enforcement."

The men wanted Nebraskans to know that they're hearing the criticism in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis at the beginning of the summer. They also offered a defense of officers in Nebraska, saying what happens in other parts of the country doesn't necessarily happen here.

Attorney General Doug Peterson said the discussion about race is very important, and law enforcement agencies and officers want to participate in that discussion. But he said terms like white privilege and systemic racism are part of an agenda that distracts from the goal.

"So I'm going to reject the phrase 'systemic racism' because I believe it comes from a group who wants to create a certain narrative," Peterson said. "What I'm going to say is, let's have an honest discussion. Let's discuss where we've missed it from a law enforcement standpoint, let's discuss where we've missed it from a justice system standpoint."

They also wanted to emphasize the challenges of police work, which can be dangerous. While recent research shows policing has become safer over past decades, 89 officers across the country died while working last year, and 115 Nebraska officers have died in the state’s history. Lincoln Police Department Investigator Mario Herrera most recently died after being shot while serving an arrest warrant.

But LaVista Police Chief Bob Lausten said the hazards of policing are not always visible, saying officers face trauma regularly by witnessing violence and death. A record number of U.S. police officers died by suicide in 2019, according to the advocacy group Blue H.E.L.P. The nonprofit says the increase may be due to more reports rather than more suicide deaths.

Douglas County Sheriff Tim Dunning said a member of his agency died by suicide earlier this year.

"A New York Police Department survey ranked factors of law enforcement suicide," Dunning said. "[They are] depression, relationship conflicts with personal losses, easy access to firearms, drug and alcohol abuse, financial difficulties, internal investigations, fear of a secret getting out, and legal problems, to name a few."

State Patrol Superintendent John Bolduc said recruits spend about a thousand hours in training at the State Patrol academy, followed by several hundred hours once assigned to a post. Topics include ethics, de-escalation, stress management, and cultural diversity.

Bolduc said they did learn some lessons from the large protests in Omaha and Lincoln at the end of May.

"I think we could do a better job in communicating expectations, not only with those folks who are there to exercise their lawful rights, but also to establish boundaries. I don't think we did a great job of that," Bolduc said. "Please, come assemble peaceably, express your first amendment rights, but at the point you begin to damage someone's property, or attempt to injure a police officer or injure a person of a different opinion, those folks need to be arrested. We have to draw a line."

Attorney General Peterson also defended qualified immunity, a legal defense for all government officials accused of wrongdoing. Opponents say it should be ended because it allows police officers to get away with violent behavior.

Peterson said he believes qualified immunity is fair and he's in full support of it.

Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner said he's wary of proposed regulations aimed at limiting use of force because that could put officers in danger.

He feels wide access to cell phone cameras and social media platforms are “bringing to the forefront how ugly arresting a resisting suspect can be.”

"Taking someone into custody that won't comply with lawful orders, or resists arrest, is never going to be visually appealing."

Wagner added his officers are having a hard time going from "hero to zero" after George Floyd's killing, saying the public suddenly lost trust in law enforcement. Asked about protests and public discussions about police reform over the past several years, Wagner replied: "They didn't call us. They didn't talk to who they should have talked to."

The ACLU of Nebraska has published several reports about police practices and polices across the state, including on complaint processes and racial profiling. An ACLU of Nebraska representative said it's standard practice to send reports to law enforcement agencies before they are published.

The panelists said they believe most Nebraskans have faith in law enforcement and they appreciate the public support they've received.