Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha
Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha proposed a police oversight bill on July 23 that sparked two hours of debate. Photo courtesy of NET Nebraska

Senators allowed a surprising late-addition bill July 23 that would create local police oversight boards in Nebraska cities. 

The bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Justin Wayne of District 13 in Omaha,  would create citizen oversight boards that evaluate the practices of local police departments starting in 2021. Board members would be appointed by their mayor and approved by the city council. The bill would apply to cities with more than 5,000 people that employ full-time police officers.

LB1222 comes amid calls to end racial injustice and greater scrutiny of police following the death of George Floyd. Floyd, who was Black, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, which ignited protests across the country, including Lincoln and Omaha.

“This is about being compassionate to a community’s needs,” he said. “This would open up a big conversation with what we should do about police oversight.”

Speaker Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk initially was opposed to the bill because he said he was concerned about the timing of introducing a bill so late into the session. But, after an hour of debate, he said he changed his mind and voted in favor of the bill.

“As we go forward in the rest of this session, I hope that all of us will quit our preconceived ideas or impressions of different bills simply because of what we’ve been told or what we think,” he said. “If we are going to accomplish great things in the last 14 days, we have to start acting as individuals, not as units of some group or some lobby. Let’s open our minds and be receptive to what is said on the floor.”

In order to pass the bill, Wayne had to request a motion from the Legislature to suspend the rules that require legislation to be introduced during the first 10 days of the session, or in early January. Rather than attaching new material to another impending bill, Wayne said he did the right thing during an unprecedented time by requesting an exception to the rules.

The motion passed 32-4.

With only 14 days left in the session, Wayne still has to hold a hearing, amend the bill and get it to pass three times on the floor. 

Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha echoed many of Wayne’s sentiments and said he believes a conversation about racial issues and police oversight is necessary given the current climate. Vargas also said he has been impacted greatly by the death of James Scurlock, the 22-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by a white bar owner in Vargas’ district during an Omaha protest. 

“People across our country are crying out for a genuine dialogue,” he said. “Sometimes timing is everything.”

Opponents of the bill, however, believe there is not enough time for Wayne to get the bill to materialize with only 14 days remaining in the session. 

“These are highly charged issues with potentially strong opposition, which suggests to me a rushed process is not the right approach,” said Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, who voted against the bill. 

As an alternative, others suggested an interim study involving community members and police.

“Why didn’t you choose an interim study that would provide all parties to prepare their thoughts?” said Sen. John Arch of La Vista. “I would like to see an interim study, that would be my preference.”

Wayne responded that he is concerned an interim study may not occur in the fall because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said an interim study would be redundant since residents are already aware that police oversight is a problem. Morfeld, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he heard countless stories of racially charged incidents with police officers during the two-day listening forums in Lincoln and Omaha on June 8-9.

“I’ve been hearing overwhelmingly from my community that we need to take action, so this is our opportunity to do that,” he said. “Let’s give a voice to the countless Nebraskans that have told us that there is a problem.”

*This story was updated to state that senators voted to allow the bill to be introduced, but did not advance it. 

 

Madeleine Grant is a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studying journalism and French. She enjoys reading, writing and travel. Madeleine is from Illinois and aspires to become a professional journalist or editor.