LINCOLN — State lawmakers clashed Thursday over a proposal that would allow citizen crime-prevention patrols to put a flashing amber light on their vehicles.
Proponents said the lights would deter crime.
Opponents said they would improperly give the appearance of legal authority and might lead to confrontations such as the one in Florida that led to the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood patrol volunteer.
“Everybody wants to play cop. Everybody wants to have symbols of authority,” said State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha. “You don't need these lights to do what these people are doing.”
Legislative Bill 399 was introduced by Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha and has the backing of the Omaha Coalition of Citizen Patrols, which includes about 30 neighborhood patrols of about 400 volunteers.
Currently, only vehicles involved in moving houses, storm spotting and towing vehicles are allowed to put amber flashing lights.
Lautenbaugh said citizen patrols in Omaha are trained by police, carry identification cards and are charged with reporting suspicious activity in their neighborhoods.
“They are unarmed — let me underline that — and under no circumstance are they permitted to confront anyone,” he said.
Lautenbaugh said that citizen patrol vehicles are marked and that at least one neighborhood patrol, in the Montclair subdivision, has used amber lights in the past.
But that prompted a citizen complaint, he said, and inspired his bid to make the practice legal.
He said allowing the flashing lights would let citizens know that the patrol is out and deter crime by serving as a visible warning.
Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha agreed, calling it a “very common sense measure.”
Chambers, 76, mounted an all-day filibuster against the bill, marveling at times at his stamina to stand and speak all day.
He said he objected so strongly because he has fielded complaints from black citizens who have been the subject of unreasonable stops by police — based on calls from volunteers who felt an African-American was out of place in a white neighborhood.
“You hope no one does wrong,” Chambers said of the volunteers, but the potential is there.
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said he is concerned that adding amber lights could increase the chances of a Trayvon Martin-like confrontation.
Martin was shot by George Zimmerman, who was a mixed-race Hispanic, in February 2012 in a confrontation over Martin’s presence in a predominantly white neighborhood. It ignited a national furor over issues of race, citizen patrols and concealed handguns.
The Legislature adjourned for the day before a vote could be taken on first-round advancement of LB 399. Debate is expected to continue today.