Police Oversight Proposal Criticized; Education Commission Considered

Feb. 2, 2021, 5:51 p.m. ·

Sen. Terrell McKinney testifies on his police oversight bill Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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A proposal to require Lincoln and Omaha to establish civilian police oversight boards was criticized as unnecessary in a public hearing Tuesday. And lawmakers considered a proposal for a new commission to recommend changes in how Nebraska pays for public schools.

The police oversight proposal was introduced by Sen. Terrell McKinney. McKinney, who’s Black, said growing up in Omaha, he was stopped multiple times by police without justification.

“I've been frisked in search for guns and drugs that I've never had, and then allowed to proceed to my destination once those items were not found. I've been assaulted by officers, for which I have permanent scars on my head, where such force was neither warranted nor necessary. It's time that we intentionally and actively do something about this,” McKinney said.

McKinney’s bill would require Omaha and Lincoln to establish civilian police oversight boards with subpoena powers to investigate complaints against police. It was supported by Spike Eickholt of ACLU Nebraska.

“It provides that the oversight board is actually going to be independent. It's not going to be within the police department but it's going to be a separate entity,” with members appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council,” Eickholt said.

Under the proposal, the board would recommend disciplinary actions in case of police misconduct. Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer opposed the bill, saying it undercuts the authority of the chief of police.

“The chief should be held accountable for the department, not a separate body. Civilian boards, historically, administer less discipline than the chief will,” Schmaderer said.

Jim Maguire, head of the Omaha Police Officers Association, also opposed the bill. Maguire said the existing chain of command, along with body cameras, civilian cameras, internal affairs units and existing review boards, make such legislation unnecessary.

“When we talk about police oversight, it’s already here. This bill, in reality, is looking to solve a problem that doesn’t exist in Nebraska,” Maguire said.

Sen. Justin Wayne said one problem with existing disciplinary procedures is that, unlike other for professions like child care, disciplinary proceedings for police are kept confidential.

But Lynn Rex of the League of Nebraska Municipalities, opposing the bill, suggested given the nature of police work, making disciplinary procedures public could backfire.

“How likely is it that witnesses are going to come forward if their names are going to be public? Secondly, how likely is it the police officer will come forward and basically – I don’t know how else to say it – ‘out’ another officer that’s not using best practices, or not following protocol?” Rex asked.

Wayne, chair of the Urban Affairs Committee that heard the bill, said he thinks it can advance with some changes.

Also Tuesday, members of the Education Committee heard a proposal by Sen. Wendy DeBoer for a new commission to recommend changes in how the state pays for public schools.

DeBoer said because of term limits, senators have come to rely on lobbyists for information about school finance, leading to fears about proposed reforms.

“The way to counter a fear that the lobby is getting too powerful isn't to just disparage them on general principle. It is to put into place, a source of information, advice and research that is not paid to have an opinion. Yes, people on the commission will have opinions, some of them will have jobs that influence that opinion, just like in the Legislature, just like any one of us. But they aren't paid to have specific opinions, and I have tried to balance the committee to counteract any biases there might be,” DeBoer said.

DeBoer is proposing a commission of 17 members, including representatives of various-sized schools to study alternatives to the current system of school financing, which relies heavily on local property taxes.

Last year, proposals that promised more money from state tax sources were opposed by critics who said without new taxes, the state would cut school aid the next time it ran into a budget crunch. Sen. Lou Ann Linehan asked Jack Moles, a lobbyist representing the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association, or NRCSA, if that view had changed.

“Last year… I think it was NRCSA’s position, and all the schools’ position, unless we had new revenue we could not fix the school formula. Would it still be your position on this?” Linehan asked.

“I would tell you that's my personal opinion but I'd like to see a commission,” Moles replied.

Spencer Head of the Omaha school board objected to that system’s not being guaranteed a spot on the proposed commission.

“We cannot fathom a school Financial Review Commission that does not specifically include representation for the largest school districts in the state. We cannot fathom a school financing Review Commission that does not specifically include representation for schools with a high concentration of poverty. And we cannot fathom a school finance Review Commission that does not specifically include large urban school districts which are often more diverse and have high rates of students with disabilities,” Head said.

DeBoer said she has an amendment that would guarantee Omaha a spot on the commission, and promised to work with others who have concerns. The Education Committee took no immediate action on the proposal.