LINCOLN — Saying the public deserves to know about police wrongdoing, State Sen. Ernie Chambers called Friday for ending secrecy in disciplinary cases against law enforcement.
“Taxpayers have the right to total disclosure of how public employees hired and paid by their tax dollars are behaving — and misbehaving,” he said.
Chambers proposed to accomplish that goal with legislation barring arbitration in cases involving disciplinary action against officers.
He told the Judiciary Committee that Legislative Bill 541 responds to the reinstatement of two Omaha police officers who were involved with kicking, punching and stomping on a man outside an Omaha hospital.
Controversy erupted in parts of the Omaha community after surveillance camera footage of the 2011 incident became public.
The videotape showed several officers forcefully taking Robert A. Wagner into custody outside Creighton University Medical Center, where Wagner's cousin had been taken after being fatally shot.
Two of those involved, Officer Aaron Pennington and Officer Jackie Dolinsky, were fired by then-Police Chief Alex Hayes.
Both appealed their terminations, and under the police union contract, the case went to arbitration. Sharon K. Imes, a Wisconsin-based arbitrator, reinstated both officers after receiving evidence behind closed doors.
Chambers said Friday he objected to the secrecy surrounding the arbitration proceedings.
He also said he has concerns because, under the union contract, an arbitrator's decision cannot be appealed.
The secrecy of the process has fed community doubts and suspicions about whether the city properly presented the case against the two officers, Chambers said.
The city did not release the arbitrator's reports, although The World-Herald obtained copies of them.
Chambers said there are suspicions because the City of Omaha's defense against liability was bolstered when the police officers were found not to have used excessive force.
Wagner has a federal lawsuit pending against the city and several officers, alleging that his civil rights were violated during the arrest.
In June he was sentenced to 60 days in jail for the attempted assault of a police officer during the 2011 incident.
No one from the Omaha police union testified at the legislative hearing.
Bill Mueller, representing the State Troopers Association of Nebraska, spoke against barring arbitration as a method of dealing with law enforcement disciplinary actions.
But he said the troopers association would have no problem with the proceedings, as well as the final arbitrator's report, being made public.
It also wouldn't object to having the law spell out that an arbitrator's decisions can be appealed.
Mueller said both are true now under the state troopers' contract with the state.
No one testified about a second Chambers bill, which would require that a law enforcement officer lose his or her law enforcement certificate if the officer becomes incapacitated.
He said some officers have been on disability for years and are unable to work, yet they maintain their state-issued certificates.
The Judiciary Committee took no immediate action on the bills.
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