Police Oversight Proposal Heard; Budget and Other Bills Get Final Approval

July 31, 2020, 5:45 p.m. ·

The Urban Affairs Committee hears a proposal for police oversight Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Supporters hailed a proposal for civilian police oversight as an important first step at a legislative hearing Friday, while critics said the proposal missed the mark. And lawmakers gave final approval to a series of bills, including adjustments to the state budget.

Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha introduced the civilian police oversight bill, which would require cities to appoint boards to investigate complaints of police misconduct. Supporters of the bill recounted stories of police abuse and brutality, both in recent protests and before. Kevin Abourezk, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, referred to the 2017 death of Zachary Bear Heels, a mentally disabled Native American man who was repeatedly tased by Omaha police. Abourezk said accountability is needed.

“I am hopeful that knowing their actions would be scrutinized by independent citizen review boards will force any officer considering violence against a citizen to pause and reconsider his or her actions,” Abourezk said.

Bianca Swift also supported the measure.

“I’m not sure how an oversight committee can do anything but good things for Nebraska. Every good system needs checks and balances. That is how democracy works. And if you don’t ensure that our police force answer to someone other than themselves, how can we expect them to work with, instead of against, the communities they are so often in?” Swift said.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert opposed the proposal, LB1222. Stothert said citizens in Omaha can already file complaints that are investigated by a police internal affairs unit with a decision made by the police chief, and can appeal to a citizen board she appoints if they are dissatisfied with his decision.

“Chief Schmaderer is a highly respected leader. He is (a) fair, knowledgeable, forward-thinking, no-nonsense police chief. And he is accountable to our community and he is accountable to me. LB1222 creates a citizen board that is accountable to no one,” Stothert said.

Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer also opposed the bill.

“The clearest way for a company or a police department to fail is if the CEO or the chief did not have the ability to levy discipline or direct the culture of an agency. The Municipal Police Oversight Act (LB1222) undermines the authority of the chief of police. We’re not even mentioned in the bill,” Schmaderer said.

As testimony continued Friday afternoon Wayne, who was chairing the hearing, suddenly interrupted.

“We’re going to have to stop the hearing. Everybody please send emails. We just got confirmation that somebody in this hearing room has been exposed to COVID, so out of an abundance of caution, I have to cancel this hearing,” Wayne said.

Wayne said people could email in their testimony through Monday.

Earlier Friday, lawmakers voted final approval for a series of bills with no further debate. Among them were adjustments to the two-year state budget passed last year, with the biggest change being an additional $55 million to help pay for damage from last year’s flooding.

Senators also gave final approval to legislation requiring a plan for the future of Nebraska’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers. They passed a sexual assault survivors’ bill of rights, including the right to have an advocate present during examinations and interviews. They passed a bill exempting someone who breaks into a locked car to rescue a child from legal penalties.

They added vaping to the state’s prohibition on indoor smoking in public places. They passed a bill requiring schools to adopt policies to prevent teachers from “grooming” students for sexual contact. They approved legislation allowing municipalities damaged by catastrophic flooding to annex land not on the municipal borders – that’s aimed at the town of Winslow, which saw severe damage during last year’s flooding. Town leaders are now exploring a move to nearby farmland.

And legislators passed a bill requiring two hours a year of anti-bias and implicit-bias training for law enforcement officers. After that vote, Speaker Jim Scheer singled out the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ernie Chambers, who continued looking down and underlining a paper on his desk.

“Sen. Chambers I am talking to you, and I know you can hear me. On behalf of my colleagues and myself, I’m not assuming that you may not come back to the Legislature at some point in time, but I believe this is the last bill that we will have to opportunity to vote on of yours. I want to congratulate you on this bill and your career in the Nebraska Legislature. Thank you,” Scheer said.

Chambers has served in the Legislature for 46 years, the longest of anyone in state history. He’s being forced out by term limits, which has happened to him once before, when he sat out 4 years and was then returned to office. He’s now 83 years old.