Terrell McKinney arrived in the Nebraska Legislature with big expectations. Social unrest swept the nation, resonating with North Omahans who elected the one-time state champion wrestler and current Creighton University law student in 2020 to solve longtime static issues.
Among them was a question remaining after the protests ended, the tear gas settled and the city commended itself for how it responded to last year’s protests: what power do citizens have over their police?
This session McKinney introduced LB515. The bill would establish Citizen Police Oversight Boards in both Omaha and Lincoln.
“I think it’s necessary because it’s clear that the police are not going to police themselves,” Sen. McKinney said. “This is what is needed for transparency and accountability on the police force.”
Even though Omaha and Lincoln have established their own police oversight boards, Sen. McKinney believes these bodies lack the independence and power to meaningfully address complaints of misconduct.
Omaha’s Citizen Complaint Review Board was established in 2014 via executive order, but its proceedings are kept private. Last year, The Reader showed the board, founded in 2014, reviewed six cases in the last two years. Earlier records were not made available. In that same time the Omaha Police Department had reviewed more than 400 complaints against themselves.
In response to protests, OPD implemented new trainings and revised it use of force policy. Mayor Jean Stothert changed how citizens can report complaints to the board, which reports to her office, as well as including a requirement for the board to issue yearly reports.
In February, Board Chair Richard Wescott issued a one-page report saying the board reviewed four cases and agreed with Chief Todd Schmaderer’s judgement on all of them.
In response to a public records request for cases reviewed by the CCRB, Deputy City Attorney Bernard in den Bosch said the meetings are not open to the public and any records generated are not considered public.
“The CCRB runs independent of any City oversight. In that regard, the City does not possess the records that you request,” in den Bosch said in an email.
The Citizen Police Oversight Boards established by Sen. McKinney’s LB515 would consist of seven members appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council to serve five-year terms, and the appointees can not have any current or past affiliation with the police department. A similar bill from State Sen. Justin Wayne, of District 11 in Omaha, stalled in last year’s session. This session Sen. Wayne has introduced a bill that would increase trainings across the state as well as create a public database of police misconduct.
To give the boards proposed by Sen. McKinney meaningful ability to investigate complaints, the legislation gives them subpoena power. And to ensure transparency, the complaints would be reviewed at public meetings. The boards would also be able to recommend charges to a prosecutor in order to address complaints of misconduct.
Sen. McKinney said he is hopeful about LB515’s chances of passing in the legislature, but he acknowledges the obstacles in its path.
“I think there’s a lack of life experience from those from other communities that don’t fully understand why individuals needed to go to the streets and protest, why individuals continue to speak out,” he said.
During the process of trying to pass LB515, Sen. McKinney says he hopes to change some hearts and minds, helping people understand why communities are asking for stronger police oversight. Examples like Black Omahans overrepresentation in the criminal justice system, from traffic stops to prison populations. He plans to provide senators in the legislature with the data and resources necessary to help them understand the urgency of this issue.
Others say that police oversight can’t wait. Citizen groups in Omaha have started organizing their own cop watch training programs to keep an eye on police and hopefully stop misconduct before it happens.
Mike Huber, a founding member of Cop Watch Omaha, describes the group as “a project of Omaha socialists.” The group started to organize a cop watch training program in response to last summer’s protests.
“This is something that’s happened in a lot of other cities, and there’s been some success in preventing brutality and even getting, certainly police reforms enacted,” Huber said. “And that was just something that we wanted to try and replicate here because this whole summer happened, and the city didn’t change at all.”
Huber says Cop Watch Omaha’s training program consists of legal knowledge, history, and roleplay to prepare participants for observing police on the streets of Omaha. Additionally, Cop Watch Omaha is hoping to become a go-to resource for Omaha residents when they have an encounter with police.
Omaha’s lack of meaningful police oversight is the main reason why a group like Cop Watch Omaha is necessary, according to Huber.
“There are gaps [in city policy] all over the place, right? I mean, it’s not an accident that they can get away with all this stuff,” he said. “They don’t even keep a public record of complaints against officers. So how are you supposed to know if an officer is even doing a good job?”
While personal records of officer conduct are sealed, others showing how far the police will go to keep an eye on some Omahans have recently become public.
On Feb. 25, the ACLU of Nebraska reported that emails from the Omaha Police Department showed officers surveilling Black and brown activists during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Executive Director Danielle Conrad says this surveillance is further evidence of the need for increased police oversight.
“When you see this level of resource being poured into surveillance, it’s just really troubling. And so I think it really brings forward a renewed interest in conversations about oversight, reform and resources,” Conrad said.
The ACLU of Nebraska also won a lawsuit over the City of Omaha and OPD following a mass arrest of 120 protesters last summer, which promised changes to how police arrest nonviolent demonstrators. That kind of a multi-faceted approach to police oversight needs to be apparent even if LB515 passes in the legislature, Huber said.
“I think people will have to watch no matter what, no matter what the laws are, until policing as a system is totally different because right now it’s based on violence, and that’s their culture,” he said.
Sen. McKinney knows the importance of grassroots organization. Whether it was campaigning or advocating for racial justice with local organizations, he knows people can’t rely on the government to lead the way. But hopefully this bill can bolster a community approach to police brutality while also legitimizing and furthering mechanisms to hold officers accountable.
“I think those efforts are commendable and should be done. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” McKinney said. “Everyone has a part and a role in making sure that police are held accountable and the processes are as transparent as possible.”
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