Stronger scrutiny proposed in cases of police misconduct

Lawmakers discussed a bill April 4 that would eliminate certain conflicts of interest and provide accountability and transparency in Nebraska State Patrol investigations.

<a href='http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist32' target='_blank' title='Link to the website of Sen. Laura Ebke'>Sen. Laura Ebke</a>
Sen. Laura Ebke

LB791, introduced by Crete Sen. Laura Ebke, would remove state patrol sergeants from the collective bargaining unit and instead place them in the supervisors unit. Additionally, it would remove disciplinary and investigative procedures from the scope of collective bargaining.

Ebke said she introduced the bill on behalf of the governor in response to several cases of misconduct within the state patrol ranks.

“The executive branch has offered many compelling reasons for reform to ensure better accountability in law enforcement,” she said. “Our police should be held to a higher standard.”

A pending Business and Labor Committee amendment would replace the bill with provisions of Ebke’s LB792. As amended, these would require law enforcement agencies to document the reason for and circumstances surrounding an officer’s separation of service from that agency. The head of that agency must then submit the report to the Nebraska Crime Commission.

Additionally, agencies would be required to submit a more detailed report to the Nebraska Crime Commission if an officer is terminated from employment or allowed to resign in lieu of termination for conduct that would constitute incompetence, neglect of duty, incapacity, dishonesty, a guilty plea to a felony charge, a felony conviction or another violation of the officer’s oath of office, code of ethics or statutory duties.

The report must include a summary of the relevant allegations and identification of any witnesses to such allegations. The law enforcement agency report must be submitted within 30 days of the employee’s termination.

A law enforcement officer terminated under such circumstances would be required to sign a waiver upon application for employment with a new agency that would allow the prospective employer to contact the officer’s former agency and obtain a copy of the report detailing his or her separation from previous service.

The former employer would be required to provide the report if requested. The person designated to prepare such a report would be immune from civil liability if he or she provides the information in good faith.

Finally, the bill would allow state employees to report sexual harassment directly to the state Department of Administrative Services. The investigation would be conducted either by the department or the state agency where the employee works.

The department or agency conducting the investigation would maintain the confidentiality of the reporting employee and any other person participating in such an investigation except in cases when disclosure is authorized in writing by the person or when necessary to conduct the investigation or impose discipline. Additionally, the person against whom the allegation is made would be informed of the reporting employee’s identity.

The state agency employing the reporting employee would be prohibited from retaliating or discriminating against the employee or any other person for participating in the investigation.

Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston spoke in support of the bill and amendment. She said most state patrol members and police officers want to be held to a higher standard.

“This prevents bad-actor cops from jumping from jurisdiction to jurisdiction if there is misconduct,” Albrecht said. “These are simple things to ensure transparency and accountability.”

Omaha Sen. Sara Howard spoke in support of the sexual harassment provision of the committee amendment. She said one former state patrol employee made a complaint of sexual harassment after years of ongoing harassment and discrimination that created a hostile work environment.

When she told her superiors, Howard said, the woman felt ignored when she was trying to have her voice heard.

“Our state patrol has become a place where women are not valued and their contributions don’t seem to matter,” she said. “The agency she worked for had an administration that did nothing to protect her after being notified [of her harassment claims.]”

The state patrol administration, not the unions, should be the focus of reform, said Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen in expressing concern about the committee amendment.

“One of my fundamental concerns is that within the scope of transparency and accountability within law enforcement, we’re shifting too much of the focus on to the union when it should be on the administration,” he said. “We need to be really careful how we get there.”
Omaha Sen. Mike McDonnell opposed the bill, saying he agreed with the intent of the bill, but disagreed on the process proposed within it. He said collective bargaining rights need to be protected.

“What we should be doing is saying to people throughout the state that we want you to go to the collective bargaining table, work together and if necessary remove people who are not representing the organization and not committed to the oath they took,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re encouraging the process and respecting the collective bargaining process.”

Nothing in the state patrol disciplinary procedures or collective bargaining agreement would:
• limit the discretion of the superintendent of law enforcement and public safety from disclosing the status of an internal investigation or discipline to the Legislature, Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice or a complainant;
• limit the consideration by the state patrol of disciplinary action in a prior case that occurred within the 10 years preceding the date such progressive discipline is imposed;
• limit the misconduct for which a new disciplinary proceeding may be initiated that occurred within the two years preceding the date discipline is imposed;
• require the release of reports and materials concerning an internal investigation of a member alleged to have committed a Class I misdemeanor, felony or an allegation involving dishonesty prior to the initial investigation interview;
• limit or restrict access of individuals conducting the internal investigation to materials regarding a member under investigation; or
• prevent, limit or restrict access by the commission to internal investigation reports or materials.

Senators moved to the next item on the agenda before taking action on the bill. Per a practice implemented last year by Speaker Jim Scheer, the sponsor of a bill that is facing a potential filibuster must demonstrate sufficient support for a cloture motion before the measure will be scheduled for additional debate.

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