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Editorial: Lawmakers must create police accountability in addressing racial concerns

Editorial: Lawmakers must create police accountability in addressing racial concerns

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Hundreds of people attend a vigil and march to remember Zachary Bear Heels ending at 60th and Center in Omaha on June 5, 2020. Bear Heels died in June 2017 after being tased by Omaha police officers.

“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal. Reaction to last summer’s disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.”

— “Kerner Report” by the National Advisory

Commission on Civil Disorders, 1968

“The United States is now the most multicultural ethnic democracy in the history of the world … The changing of our ethnic composition will place new pressures on society … will our differences divide us or will we be united by our common goals, ideology and aspirations?”

— Omaha Commission on

Community and Race Relations, 1998

“This is the time for the business community, in partnership with other leaders, to stand together to address racism in all of its forms.”

— Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce,

June 2020

“These listening sessions cannot be another chapter in the go-through-the-motions Olympics.”

— Ellen Jorgenson, a Lincoln high school teacher, at last summer’s Nebraska Legislature Judiciary Committee listening sessions.

~ ~ ~

A danger lurked last summer amid the passions stirred by George Floyd’s hideous death under the knee of a callous Minneapolis police officer: That time would pass and White America would reset to its default position of tut-tutting racism but failing to create a real, sustained war on this scourge.

And now, as the Nebraska Legislature, which in the summer determined it did not have time to address questions of police oversight, reconvenes, we worry that we see evidence of this. With at least eight bills introduced seeking to address concerns raised after Floyd was killed, early indications suggest our lawmakers will take easier steps but avoid anything that might trouble police.

The World-Herald’s Paul Hammel reported that Omaha police, the state police chiefs association, a state law enforcement union and the ACLU of Nebraska at a legislative hearing supported Legislative Bill 51. It would require more anti-bias and de-escalation training, psychological exams of prospective officers and bans chokeholds unless an officer faces a deadly threat, limits carotid holds, and requires agencies to adopt policies on the use of force and the duty to intervene.

But officers and some lawmakers expressed opposition to proposals from two Black Omaha senators to create public databases of officers’ past decertifications, firings, misconduct reports and violations of law.

Sens. Justin Wayne and Terrell McKinney questioned why the public can look up disciplinary actions taken against doctors, lawyers, firefighters and even tattoo artists, but can’t do the same for law enforcement officers.

“So we can do that for child care workers but not someone who can shoot and kill? How does that make sense?” Wayne asked.

It doesn’t — and this is hardly an issue of interest only to people of color, who shared dozens of stories of discrimination from officers during Judiciary Committee listening sessions in the wake of last summer’s protests.

Police officers work for all of us. We pay them to keep us safe and give them the authority to use deadly force when necessary. And all of us, including officers, have a critical, vested interest in rooting out bad cops — such as Derek Chauvin, the officer charged in Floyd’s death who had 18 complaints in his official record.

Powerful unions, through arbitration clauses in their contracts, too often succeed in keeping officers on the job after findings of misconduct. For example, three of the four Omaha officers fired in the Taser death of Zachary Bear Heels were reinstated last year. If a troubled officer’s history of brutality, discrimination and other misconduct is kept secret, that officer can move from one agency to another, from one state to another. And all the sensitivity training in the world, even when it successfully changes minds, won’t stop the bad cops who keep their jobs or get rehired.

Public registries, available in some form in 27 states, would show suspensions and other discipline, holding officers accountable and enabling communities to easily check the records of potential hires.

Nebraska clearly should make public proven incidents of misconduct. It is a critical piece of transparency to help build trust, a central challenge in improving race relations.

LB 51, the one that police supported, is described by Judiciary Chairman Steve Lathrop of Omaha as “not onerous” for law enforcement, but one that fulfills a promise to “do something” after the listening sessions last year.

Our goal, though, should not be to merely “do something.” It should be to do the right things to make a real difference. At long last.

All of us, including officers, have a critical, vested interest in rooting out bad cops.

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Nebraska clearly should make public proven incidents of misconduct. It is a critical piece of transparency to help build trust.

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