The Omaha City Council held a public hearing Tuesday on a proposal to allow the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO) install equipment for automatic license plate detection at city traffic lights. DCSO already has 15 cameras throughout the county, and this agreement would approve 10 more in the City of Omaha. The vote is next week.
Will Niemack from DCSO said the agreement is between the city and the county, while the county has an agreement with Flock Safety to install the equipment. He said the cameras only record the back of a car in a traffic lane to record its license plate, and the data is only available to the Sheriff’s office. He said they’re interested in the technology because of a rise in crime.
“I’m sure you’ve seen the headlines in terms of recent news of the high rate of auto theft, and how that is rampant right now,” Niemack said. “This system is not designed to monitor traffic… It’s an investigative tool to help solve crime.”
Deputy City Attorney Bernard in den Bosch said the Omaha Police Department isn’t involved in the agreement and won’t have access to any of the data collected by the system because they weren’t interested in using the technology.
Opponents raised concerns that the cameras would be an invasion of privacy and their data could be potentially misused. Spike Eickholt, representing the ACLU of Nebraska, said the system would be surveillance on the entire city, not just criminals.
“If it’s available for law enforcement on request, it can be available for private parties and litigation on request,” Eickholt said. “You’re going to be creating a database of people’s travel throughout the city
Hector Soliman-Valdez from Flock Safety said the data is secure, and they use the same encryption that federal agencies like the FBI use. He said DCSO would be the sole owner of any data, and it would only be made available to a third party if the sheriff deems it appropriate.
Councilmember Aimee Melton said the system may be a step too far infringing on citizen’s privacy. She said that although she trusts the current sheriff, there isn’t a way to prevent a future sheriff from misusing the data.
“Public safety is literally my number one concern, but I also have to think about people’s constitutional rights and liberties,” Melton said. “And when we just start ticking away at them, that’s what this does.”
The City Council also held public hearings for proposed amendments to the city charter Tuesday. If approved during next week’s vote, the amendments will be put on the November ballot for voters to decide.
A proposed amendment to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the list of classifcations guaranteed equal protection under the charter drew both criticism and praise. Proponents, like Sara Rips from the ACLU of Nebraska, said the amendment would send a strong message to the people of Omaha.
“It imbues a sense of belonging, provides clarity to all stakeholders and helps the city attract new businesses, create jobs, address brain drain and better compete in a global marketplace,” Rips said.
Opponents, however, argued the LGBTQ community doesn’t need additional protections, and many of them made religious appeals. Opponent Peter Smagacz said homosexuality is an “abomination” and contradictory to Christian values. The language already designates “creed” as a protected class, but multiple opponents argued that “faith” should be added to the city charter instead.
“Who is this actually protecting? Who is actually being discriminated upon that needs additional protection?” opponent Allie French said. “If there is discrimination, they already have protections.”
Proponent Luke Schroer, a gay man, said he has “gone to work as a straight man” to avoid losing his job.
“I know that a lot of people might not be able to relate to this…but I have personal experiences when you’re just questioning what protections do you have,” Schroer said. “So I absolutely hope that this gets passed forward.”
A proposal to prevent city councilmembers from voting for their own replacements in the case of a vacancy also drew criticism. Scott Blake, who has brought the issue forward throughout the charter convention, said the proposal didn’t address the issue.
In 2020, outgoing Councilmember Rich Pahls voted on his replacement, Colleen Brennan, before he resigned from the City Council. Blake said that was in violation of state law, and that previous city attorneys had determined that it would be illegal. The current City Attorney Matt Kuhse, however, said there was nothing in the city code that barred a councilmember from voting on their replacement, making this proposal necessary.