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Douglas County plans new post to oversee juvenile services; board member says it won't help kids

Douglas County is considering whether to hire a person to oversee the county’s juvenile justice services and coordinate reform efforts.

The county would create a new position, a deputy county administrator for juvenile services, under a plan being promoted by County Board Chairman Chris Rodgers and Patrick Bloomingdale, the county’s chief administrative officer.

The person would supervise the directors of the Douglas County Youth Center and Juvenile Assessment Center, the county’s disproportionate minority contact and compliance coordinator and leaders of other services, Bloomingdale said.

The person also might oversee the staff of Operation Youth Success, a county initiative to keep young people out of the justice system while maintaining public safety.

The new person also would lead efforts to bring about the County Board’s desired juvenile justice reforms, Bloomingdale said. That would involve bringing together judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation and detention center leaders, as well as community groups, he said.

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The job likely would pay between $80,000 and $150,000 a year, Bloomingdale said.

The concept has been in the works for months. It first came up at a Douglas County Board meeting Aug. 27, when County Board member Jim Cavanaugh, who opposes the idea, brought it up. Rodgers had mentioned the position earlier in August during a lightly attended public meeting of the board’s Child and Youth Services Committee, and it was on the agenda for that meeting.

Cavanaugh called creating the position “adding another layer of bureaucracy” that would do nothing directly for children. He said the county’s money would be better spent on hiring a child psychologist, or hiring more young people to work in the Step-Up jobs program.

The move to create the position is related to a controversial proposal to build a new, smaller county juvenile detention center along with a proposed new courthouse annex in downtown Omaha. But plans for the new post and increased programming are moving ahead despite a delay in the building project due to a taxpayer lawsuit, Rodgers said.

“This thing is bigger than the buildings,” Rodgers said. “It’s about how do we change the system? ... The main thing is that if we’re going to be committed to having the programs in place to really change the system beyond the buildings, you need someone who lives and breathes this.”

Such a position is one of several conditions laid out in a Sherwood Foundation offer to give $5 million for programming and $5 million toward the cost of a modern, smaller juvenile detention center.

But Bloomingdale said the idea is not new. He said he has been talking to County Board chairs — first Mary Ann Borgeson, then Rodgers — for years about adding another deputy county administrator. The county currently has one.

Bloomingdale said the county administrative office is understaffed compared to other similar government agencies.

The idea has picked up steam as the county’s juvenile justice efforts increased. Bloomingdale said overseeing those efforts is split up among members of his staff.

“It’d be good to have somebody who has experience in juvenile justice reform, because that’s really where a lot of this is headed,” Bloomingdale said.

He has sent a draft job description to County Board members. Rodgers said the job could be posted later in September, and a person hired in December.

The position is not funded in the county’s recently adopted budget for fiscal 2019-20. Rodgers said Sherwood might donate money for the position for the remainder, possibly six months, of the current fiscal year. Then the board would vote on funding it in the 2020-21 budget.

It’s unclear if it would require a board vote to accept donated money to pay the person.

While funding the position would require a vote of the County Board, simply creating it would not, Bloomingdale said. He said Douglas County had created positions of deputy director in its Corrections and 911 Communications Departments midyear without formal County Board approval, and then the board approved funding the salaries in the next budget.

Cavanaugh said he would oppose using private funding for the position.

“Allowing private entities to make government decisions that we would then impose on taxpayers later on is something that I oppose,” Cavanaugh said.

No other County Board members joined in the discussion at the board meeting last week.

Bloomingdale said he won’t press for the position if the majority of the County Board doesn’t support it.

“If I don’t have confidence that they’re going to be willing to fund it, then I’m not going to pursue it,” he said.

Omaha's tallest buildings

Trafficking of U.S. guns fuels much violence across Mexico

SAN DIEGO — The 21-year-old who carried out a devastating and racist rampage at an El Paso Walmart a month ago chose a powerful AK-style rifle to commit what's believed to be the deadliest attack targeting Latinos in recent U.S. history.

The weapon he used is also the gun of choice of Mexican cartels, and it's used to kill hundreds if not thousands of Mexican citizens every week.

Each year, tens of thousands of powerful assault rifles are illegally trafficked from the United States into Mexico, mostly by U.S. citizens, where they are used to support cartel-related violence and drug trafficking.

More than 33,000 people were murdered in Mexico last year, a record annual total. In Tijuana, a city that saw more than 2,500 homicides last year, earning it the title of "the most violent city in the world," nearly every single gun seized by police since 2016 came from the United States, according to the city's chief of police.

Mexico's president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has urged the United States to enact gun control.

"We are very respectful of what other governments decide, but we think these unfortunate events in the United States should prompt reflection, analysis and the decision to control the indiscriminate sale of guns," López Obrador said days after the shooting.

The Mexican government announced in late July a major new joint operation with the United States to crack down on cross-border gun trafficking. Details remain murky, and the U.S. has not confirmed it has signed on to participate in the new effort.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard has highlighted five border crossings — San Diego-Tijuana; El Paso-Ciudad Juárez; Laredo-Nuevo Laredo; McAllen-Reynosa; and Brownsville-Matamoros — where the United States and Mexico would try to stem the flow of the more than 200,000 firearms smuggled south every year.

Ebrard, speaking in Mexico City, said the number of machine guns seized at crime scenes in the country jumped 63% in early 2019, and the number of assault weapons has surged 122%.

The illegal traffic of U.S. guns into Mexico — an underground market worth hundreds of millions of dollars — fuels nearly all of the country's skyrocketing violence, according to law enforcement officials on both sides of the border.

The U.S. Congress will soon renew its decadelong debate over gun control in the wake of several recent mass shootings, including one Saturday in Odessa, Texas, in which seven people were killed and about 25 injured.

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee will return early from summer release — Wednesday — to consider gun-violence legislation. Chairmen of Senate panels are reviewing possible bills for consideration after recess.

Jack Riley, a retired DEA agent, said Mexican cartels prefer American-made guns for two reasons: they work, and they are a status symbol.

"It is really important to these criminal organizations, who stay in business by the threat of violence and through the use of violence; and the tools that they prefer to do that with are American-made guns," said Riley, who wrote the book "Drug Warrior" about his time as the DEA special agent-in charge, leading the manhunt for cartel boss Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán.

Riley said U.S. citizens trafficking American-made guns through Mexican ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, including through San Ysidro-Tijuana, is big business.

"There is a tremendous market for them, and unfortunately there's a ton of people in the United States willing to do business with some of the cartels," Riley said.

A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office showed that 70% of guns seized across all of Mexico have U.S. origins.

During his weekly press briefings, Tijuana's public safety director, Marco Antonio Sotomayor, has taken to emphasizing the United States origins of each AK-47, AR15 and Glock confiscated by police battling the city's raging drug violence.

"There's no way for people to buy guns like these in Mexico. They're American-made guns. We know they're being illegally trafficked through California into Tijuana," Sotomayor said.

Mexico's Constitution grants its citizens the right to own guns. But in practice, obtaining a firearm is very difficult under the country's strict gun laws.

Only the military is permitted to own high-caliber assault rifles in Mexico.

Any weapon more powerful than a .38 caliber is banned from personal use. Person-to-person firearm sales are also prohibited.

There is only one legal gun store in the entire country. It's in Mexico City and run by the Mexican army, which is the only agency permitted to sell guns to anyone in the country. Civilians must undergo a six-month background check.

Between 2013 and 2018 only 218 licenses to carry guns were issued nationwide, according to the Secretariat of National Defense, Mexico's equivalent of the U.S. Department of Defense.

In Tijuana, police seize dozens of illegal firearms each week.

In July, Mexican soldiers stopped a California SUV carrying an arsenal of large-caliber machine guns and rifles in Ensenada. The truck, heading south from California, was carrying six heavygauge machine guns inside, along with skilled cartridges, six tactical bibs, six AR-15-style rifles, 43 AR15 loaders and 1,290 cartridges.

Police on both sides of the border say Mexican immigration officials need better training, equipment and resources to stem the flow of guns into the country.

"They don't have the manpower. They don't have the X-ray equipment, and then always in the back of their minds, there is legitimate commerce going both ways that they have to regulate. So many of the things we're dealing with at our ports of entry, they are too," Riley said.

The Mexican state of Baja California has deployed 300 members of a newly formed National Guard to high-crime areas in Tijuana partly to target illegal drug trafficking into the country.

Riley said neither country will have success stemming the problem unless law enforcement works together from both sides of the border.

"It really is a bilateral issue that needs to be addressed consistently, and I think the scary thing about it is we're not sending a message to the cartels and the drug traffickers that we're even working together," he said.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Grace: Deaths of two children — Abby and Jaycoby — on metro streets raise big questions

I couldn’t take the bickering anymore. So after the piano lesson one recent day, I stood outside our minivan and invited my two youngest children, ages 11 and 9, to walk home.

It was only a mile. It was in a neighborhood they know well. The weather was perfect. Kids have legs. Mothers don’t need to hover. Etc.

But I have replayed this scene every day for the past week after hearing the nightmare news of two children dying on metro area streets after getting struck by vehicles.

Abby Whitford of Bellevue died Aug. 22, two days after a car hit her when she tried to walk across the main street in downtown Papillion. Jaycoby Estrada died Aug. 23 when a semitrailer truck hit the bike he was riding in Blair.

The back-to-back deaths highlight an arguably hidden issue: More people on foot and on bike are being killed by cars.

“I feel beat down,” said Julie Harris of Bike Walk Nebraska, after hearing of two more children struck by cars elsewhere in the Omaha area. Those children turned out to be OK, but Harris said she “can’t take much more of this.”

Cars and people have had an uneasy and, at times, fatal relationship. Car accidents are a leading cause of death; 230 Nebraskans died last year, including 24 pedestrians. That’s a 62% jump in pedestrian deaths from the prior four-year average.

Nine pedestrians have been killed this year so far, on par with this time last year, setting up 2019 as another potentially high pedestrian death year.

Six of the nine deaths occurred in the Omaha metro area: downtown, South Omaha, Ralston, Bellevue, Papillion and Blair.

There can be numerous factors involved in any fatality involving a motor vehicle: Speed. Weather. Seat belts. (Memo to rural Nebraskans: Buckle up. Seven of every 10 car fatalities in Nebraska occurred in rural areas, most often on highways and most often because people aren’t wearing seat belts.)

Distraction is a major factor. It doesn’t take a transportation expert to reveal what is evident at just about every red light: that the driver in the next lane has his face in a phone.

Inquisitive and 'always willing to help,' Abby Whitford, 10, will save lives after death

Plus cars these days have more doodads like navigational tools, satellite radio and movie screens to take a driver’s eyes off the road. Throw in the old stuff: Putting on makeup, listening to kids argue in the back seat, adjusting the radio, eating a sandwich.

Papillion Police Chief Scott Lyons said it seems like today’s drivers are in their private cockpits, less engaged with their surroundings as they try to get from A to B as fast as they can.

This goes for some cyclists, joggers and pedestrians he’s seen who, earbuds in, are similarly encapsulated in their own worlds, unable to hear potential hazards coming their way.

Lyons and Blair Police Lt. Aaron Barrow declined to give any detail about the children’s deaths. They said investigations are ongoing, and more details are likely to come out in a couple of weeks.

Both bemoaned these challenges: Increased congestion. Traffic counts through main thoroughfares are double the growing communities’ populations of 23,600 for Papillion and 8,100 for Blair. Not enough officers to respond to the top 911 complaint: speeding or dangerous driving.

Lyons called it “an ever-continuing project of slowing people down,” and Barrow pointed out the heavy semitrailer truck traffic Blair must contend with.

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“We have cattle trucks. We have train trucks. We have rock trucks,” Barrow said. “Close to 80 trains a day come through Blair. There is a real high volume of large-wheel traffic when you have this many state highways.”

Blair has four: Nebraska Highways 91 and 133 and U.S. Highways 30 and 75. The town’s proximity to Omaha, to ag and other plants and to the Blair Bridge over the Missouri River to Iowa make it a major pass-through for freight traffic. Three of those highways feed into downtown at the intersection where Jaycoby was killed.

The intersection is quaintly called 19th and Washington, but it’s also the intersection of Highways 91, 30 and 75. Here, at 8:15 on a Friday morning, the 11-year-old headed his bike north, attempting to cross five lanes of traffic.

This is not an easy prospect, as I discovered on a recent morning.

This intersection is fast-paced, busy and confusing.

There are no painted crosswalks, and no painted lines showing vehicles where to stop, requiring any pedestrian to cover a wide street geography. The area is a magnet for heavy equipment and semitrailer trucks: I counted 20 semitrailers alone in a five-minute span around 10:30 a.m.

'Everyone was his best friend': Jaycoby Estrada, 11, touched the hearts of many

And there were no warning or pedestrian crossing signs that might cause a driver to think twice about how fast to take turns. Only a vigilant driver or someone aware of this community’s heartbreaking loss would notice a roadside memorial that sprung up on the southeast corner.

Would flowers and a cross slow people down? It didn’t appear to on the morning I was there when I saw semitrailers negotiate left-hand turns quickly.

It was clear this gateway to small-town Blair’s downtown was for trucks and cars, not people and bikes. It was challenging for me to cross, let alone what it must be for a child.

The Papillion street where Abby Whitford was killed had fewer lanes (four) and just one highway, Nebraska Highway 85, also known as 84th Street, also known as Washington Street.

Harris’ group, Bike Walk Nebraska, said that drivers might not be accustomed to looking for children crossing streets. She said the percentage of children walking or biking to school has dropped dramatically over the years, which a federal survey shows.

That rate has plummeted from about half of school-age children in 1969 to about 10% today. There are many reasons behind this, including the loss of neighborhood schools and the increase in car volume.

Harris said if parents sense that the walking route is unsafe, they tend to drive, putting more cars on the road and fewer children on sidewalks, when there is safety in numbers. The more people are walking or cycling where cars are, the more drivers are used to seeing them.

Toddler dies after being struck by SUV driven by father as he pulled into driveway

The problem of pedestrian deaths is national. My colleague Jeff Robb reported this six months ago and it bears repeating: The monthly toll of pedestrian deaths is the equivalent of a jumbo jet crash that kills all its passengers, according to Smart Growth America.

That organization gave these reasons for higher pedestrian deaths: more crashes involving SUVs and light trucks, increased fatalities at night and street design that prioritizes cars over people.

This puts parents into a bind. We want our children to learn how to navigate the world. They can’t live in a bubble. And yet the world today is different from how it was in the 1980s, when I walked or biked anywhere as a kid because it was either that or not go. Parents didn’t schlep kids around as much then.

Jeni Campana, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Transportation, said parents need to model safe driving: seat belts on, phones down, eyes on the road. Similarly they need to educate children about being aware of their surroundings when outside vehicles.

Harris said families need to develop a culture of walking and biking — and safety.


A child is escorted across 17th and Farnam Streets in Omaha on Wednesday. Nine pedestrians have been killed in Nebraska so far this year, including six in the Omaha metro area.

My family lives in midtown near the Cathedral where neighborhood streets are single-lane and major intersections have crosswalks and lights. But the walk home from the piano lesson meant my children had to face the busy and sometimes blind intersection at 40th and California.

When I told the kids to hoof home, they stared at me, incredulous. My son, 11, glowered then ran off, leaving his 9-year-old sister in the dust. She began to cry: “But I don’t know how to cross STREETS!”

My inner Grinch surfaced: It’s time to learn. I then steered the van slowly, making sure they got home safely.

I still have my children walk places, but I remain haunted by the deaths of sweet Abby and Jaycoby. I’m haunted because I’m a parent and that kind of loss seems inconceivable. I’m haunted because I’m a driver, and in that role I could potentially place perfect strangers in harm’s way.

It’s a role all of us have some control over. We might not yet know exactly why two children died on our streets, but let their deaths raise this question for all drivers: Can we drive as if lives depended on it?

Because they do.

Omaha streets and how they got their names

Compact fury of Hurricane Dorian means a few miles may make all the difference for US coast

For Florida, just a handful of miles may make a huge difference in Hurricane Dorian's slow dance with the coast.

The National Hurricane Center forecasts Dorian to be 40 to 50 miles off the Florida coast on Tuesday and Wednesday, with hurricane-force wind speeds extending about 35 miles to the west.

When they make a forecast, meteorologists have a general idea where the monstrous storm is going but they then have to choose a point on the map instead of a general place, making it seem more specific than it really is.

And much of the Florida coast is inside that cone.

"This thing is perilously close to the state. I think we should all hope and pray for the best, but we have to prepare that this could have major impacts on the state of Florida," said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. "If you look at the National Hurricane Center's current track, I think it ends up within 30 miles of the coast of Florida. Well guess what? You do just a touch of a bump one way or another, and you have a dramatic difference all of a sudden."

Center Director Ken Graham is telling residents don't bet on safety just because his office specific forecast track has the storm just a bit offshore.

"The cone is so important," Graham said.

And making matters more touch-and-go is that with every new forecast, "we keep nudging (Dorian's track) a little bit to the left," which is closer to the Florida coast, he said.

Dorian is a powerful but small hurricane with hurricane-force winds Sunday only extending 29 miles to the west, but they are expecting to grow a bit. That makes forecasting the storm's path along the coast — either just off the coast, skirting it or moving inland with a direct hit — delicate and difficult. Just a few miles west or east makes the difference between devastation and bad but not horrible damage, meteorologists said.

"Where it doesn't directly hit, it's not going to be a huge problem," Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach said.

With a big, sloppy hurricane — say 50% larger in size — all of Florida would be under a serious threat, but that's not the case, said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.

This is what makes this a nightmare for forecasters, McNoldy said.

It's a combination of the small size, close-in track, like Matthew in 2016, and weak steering currents. That means just a smidge of a movement days ahead of time, while Dorian is in the Bahamas, can reverberate and mean a direct hit or not, said private meteorologist Ryan Maue.

That can happen just because of the timing of when Dorian's eyewall collapses and is replaced, which happens normally in storms.

Adding to that problem is Dorian's slow, almost snail-like pace. What initially looked like a Labor Day storm for the U.S. is now approaching Tuesday and Wednesday.

"People are getting impatient with this," McNoldy said. Because the threat seems to keep sticking around, it could be a problem getting the right message across, he said.

Klotzbach said he thinks the U.S. East Coast will get "scraped," but Dorian will stay just offshore, something Maue agrees with.

Maue warns, however, that two days of high waves and heavy storm surge — the hurricane center is predicting 4 to 7 feet from West Palm Beach north to Cocoa Beach area — could severely damage Florida's beaches.

Residents along Florida's coast are relieved that the forecast, for now, doesn't have Dorian making landfall in Florida, but are still preparing for the worst.

Kevin Browning in Vero Beach has put up hurricane shutters, bought a generator and is stocked with supplies.

"I'm thanking God, now, that it's turned a little bit towards the east, but that's a forecast, and we never know. I'm just praying and trying to make sure that everybody's safe. I feel for the Bahamas and I'm praying for them, and I thank God it's not coming directly to us right now."

On Sunday, Dorian's maximum sustained winds reached 185 mph, with gusts up to 220 mph, tying the record for the most powerful Atlantic hurricane to ever make landfall. That equaled the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, before storms were named. The only recorded storm that was more powerful was Hurricane Allen in 1980, with 190 mph winds, though it did not make landfall at that strength.

Associated Press writers Gerald Herbert in Vero Beach, Florida, and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed.

Photos: Hurricane Dorian pounds Bahamas, US coast waits and worries