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Lawmakers hear views on need for police reform

Lawmakers hear views on need for police reform

Some in law enforcement say oversight is sufficient; advocates for changes see lack of standards, training

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LINCOLN — Advocates for police reforms and racial justice called on state lawmakers Thursday to require Nebraska communities to have civilian oversight boards that can independently investigate allegations of police misconduct.

"This would create a mechanism to ensure that our cities' police departments are responsive, and accountable, to the civilians for which they serve," said Spike Eickholt of the ACLU of Nebraska.

But several representatives of law enforcement agencies said there's plenty of oversight already.

Civil service boards, internal police investigations, disclosure about past employment and probes by the Nebraska Attorney General's Office and other agencies already ensure that bad cops are weeded out, said North Platte Mayor Dwight Livingston, a former police officer, and others.

But, Livingston added, "Let me be clear, Black Lives Matter. What happened to George Floyd was shocking and unacceptable."

The Legislature's Judiciary Committee took testimony for most of the day Thursday on a trio of interim studies on whether Nebraska needs to adopt law enforcement reforms in the wake of the summer protests following the police-custody killing of Floyd on a Minneapolis street.

But there were also discussions about whether additional training of law enforcement is needed on use of force, dealing with the mentally ill and de-escalating confrontations. And there was debate over whether state law should more clearly require law enforcement officers to intervene if they see a colleague using unlawful force.

Greg Gonzalez, an assistant chief in the Omaha Police Department, and Sgt. Aaron Hanson of the Omaha Police Officers Association said that the Omaha department has been proactive in training its officers on things like de-escalating situations to avoid violence and that additional training was given to all 900 officers after Floyd's death.

"We know the stakes are high," Gonzalez said.

When asked if they could have changed how Omaha police responded to protests in the city in the summer, both called it a learning experience and said a comprehensive report on the responsewill be released soon.

One difference in the summer's protests is that some organizers refused to speak with police, Gonzalez said, which led to a lack of communication about "ground rules" for peaceful protests.

"Sometimes the best medicine is good healthy dialogue," Hanson said. "A lot of time, we end up talking at each other instead of with each other."

In response to Floyd's death, Omaha banned "kneeto-neck" restraints by police and changed policy involving the Citizen Complaint Review Board, allowing complaints to be sent directly to the committee rather than through the Police Department.

But Eickholt said the ACLU still views the complaint board in Omaha as inadequate because it doesn't issue public reports and doesn't have the ability to call witnesses and independently investigate. A similar police oversight board in Lincoln, for instance, allows public hearings, he said.

After the hearing, State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said the Lincoln Police Department has done "some real thoughtful things" in terms of reaching out to the minority community and building trust.

Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister testified that his department requires prospective hires to undergo a polygraph exam as well as one with a police psychologist to disqualify those who are unfit to carry a gun and a badge. But, he acknowledged, not all agencies can afford such testing.

Lincoln has also formed several subcommittees to obtain citizen input on issues like language and cultural barriers.

"We can learn a lot from listening to each other," said Ishma Valenti of Lincoln's Malone Center, which serves the minority community. "We're not anti-police; we're just anti-police brutality."

Lathrop and other senators expressed surprise that in Nebraska, police officers can be hired without first being trained at the state's law enforcement training center. Representatives of small-town police forces said that with few applicants, it's sometimes the only way to fill a job.

Lathrop and others on the committee said state law should be changed to require new officers to become certified before they are hired.

paul.hammel@owh.com, 402-473-9584

twitter.com/paulhammelowh

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