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Omaha Housing Authority expected to add surveillance cameras, improved doors at apartment towers

The Omaha Housing Authority plans to install new surveillance cameras and improve security doors at its public housing high-rises, including Evans Tower, where gunfire left two people dead on New Year’s Eve.

Plans for surveillance system and door control upgrades at OHA’s 11 towers were in the works before the Dec. 31 Evans Tower confrontation. A man allegedly shot and killed his ex-girlfriend in her apartment, then was killed when he rushed with a gun toward police in the hallway. An Omaha police officer also was injured by gunfire.

The OHA Board of Commissioners is expected to vote on contracts Thursday.

Evans Tower residents and the OHA resident on the agency’s board, Eric Burgin, have expressed concern about safety at the high-rises in the wake of the New Year’s Eve shootings. Evans Tower residents said outsiders have been coming into the building and selling drugs, and tenants were afraid to leave the buildings and sometimes their apartments because of troublemakers who don’t live there. Similar concerns have come from residents of other towers.

Housing Authority CEO Joanie Poore said she had not heard of significant concerns over drug dealing or violence at Evans Tower, although the agency does occasionally receive reports of drug dealing, loitering and safety concerns at the entrances to various OHA apartment buildings.

It’s unclear if better security doors or cameras would have prevented the New Year’s Eve incident, in which 58-year-old Dana Wells died in her Evans Tower apartment, Police Officer Joshua Ames was shot in the leg, and 57-year-old Terry Hudson was killed by police.

Poore said footage from current surveillance cameras at the door of Evans Tower, 3600 N. 24th St., showed Hudson using Wells’ key card to unlock the door and enter the building.

It is clear, though, that there are concerns at the Housing Authority about security systems at the towers, and there have been for years. Poore said the issue emerged as a priority immediately after she was hired about six months ago and met with employees from throughout the agency.

“Very quickly, it became apparent to me that we needed to have a comprehensive safety and security plan within the organization,” she said. “And so we began work on that immediately and have undertaken efforts in a variety of different ways.”

Those include surveillance cameras, access control at building doors, lighting and a better incident reporting system so that when incidents that pose a threat to residents’ safety occur, OHA managers can document them and take action.

New surveillance systems and door access controls for OHA towers have been included in the agency’s capital fund grant budget for the past six years, according to OHA Board documents.

“The surveillance systems at OHA properties are obsolete,” the board documents say. “These systems are frequently vandalized, and many cameras are inoperable on any given day. The working cameras provide poor quality images when available and are well beyond their expected life.”

The agency put the surveillance systems out for bid in April 2018, but received only one bid. They put out a revised request for proposals in August 2018.

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The OHA staff is recommending that the board approve an $801,000 contract with the Iowa-based company Inteconnex to install surveillance systems at OHA towers.

Security doors at the tower are similarly obsolete and frequently inoperable, according to OHA documents. Agency procurement staff is recommending that the board approve a $93,000 contract with Inteconnex for new access controls.

The OHA Board’s Operation and Finance Committee voted Monday to advance those contracts to the full board. Burgin joined in that vote, and said the surveillance systems and access controls will help. But he said the agency needs more on-site security in the towers.

OHA security officers make rounds at the towers and other OHA properties, as well as respond to specific reports. But Burgin, who lives in the agency’s Crown Tower, said they don’t go to the towers often enough or spend enough time there.

Eric Burgin

“They don’t stay long enough to see what’s going on,” he said.

Adding security staff is part of the ongoing discussion, Poore said, but there are no immediate plans to do so.

Poore said OHA security staff, some of whom are former law enforcement officers, do make rounds in all the OHA properties, including “going all the way up to the top floor and coming down the stairs to make sure that individuals (nontenants) aren’t loitering or sleeping in our stairwells.”

She said security staff sometimes do checks of key cards and photo IDs at tower front doors, to make sure that the key cards actually belong to the people using them. Poore said security staff also interact with residents and follow up on their concerns.

“But those efforts are somewhat limited,” she said. “We obviously have a budget like any other organization and ... we certainly couldn’t afford 24/7 security at every single one of our towers and our multifamily or apartment complexes.”

Joanie Poore

Poore said the agency tries to have two security people working in the evenings, but that varies depending on who is available.

“Sometimes it’s hard to find individuals who are both trained and available to do this sort of work,” she said.

In Burgin’s view, having two people on OHA security in the evenings is not enough, considering how many properties the housing authority has.

“They’re stretching their people too thin,” he said. “It would be nice if they had more security people, even two more people, roaming around to the properties.”

Omaha Police Deputy Chief Scott Gray said Wednesday that in the past, OHA has used off-duty officers, but OHA hasn’t asked for off-duty officers from the department or contacted OPD since the Evans Tower shooting.

OPD and OHA officials meet every other month and are set to meet next Tuesday, Gray said.

“I don’t know if they planned on discussing it then, but nobody’s reached out to me for officers or anything like that,” he said.

World-Herald staff writer Alia Conley contributed to this report.

Notable crime news of 2019

NU law professor urges lawmakers to use caution in addressing deceptive Internet practices

WASHINGTON — As Congress wrestles with how to address deceptive Internet practices, one Nebraska law professor is urging it to tread carefully.

At issue are the many ways in which people can be tricked online today, whether that involves videos altered realistically to smear public figures or manipulative user agreements designed so that nobody would ever read them.

Such practices are often lumped together under the broad term “dark patterns.”

But even that phrase is itself somewhat manipulative, and lawmakers should be wary of stifling legitimate, productive uses of new technology, according to Gus Hurwitz, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law and director of a new center that will study the issue. Hurwitz testified Wednesday during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing.

“Dark patterns are something that this committee absolutely should be concerned about, but this committee should also approach the topic with great caution,” Hurwitz testified. “Design is powerful, but it is incredibly difficult to do well. Efforts to regulate bad uses of design could easily harm efforts to do, and use design for, good.”

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Many of the worst examples of dark patterns fall into categories where the Federal Trade Commission can already act, he said.

Hurwitz suggested that the agency could be more aggressive in exploring its existing authorities, then report to Congress on the results. Still, there’s clearly an appetite for more direct legislative action among those on both sides of the aisle.

For example, Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., joined with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., to introduce the Deceptive Experiences To Online Users Reduction Act.

That legislation is aimed at cracking down on dark patterns and would prohibit platforms with more than 100 million active monthly users from relying on interfaces that intentionally impair a user’s decision-making.

The bill gained a couple of additional bipartisan backers this week, which Fischer has pointed to as a sign the bill is picking up steam.

“Nearly every time Americans use a new app on our smartphones or browse social media from our laptops, we run into dark patterns,” Fischer said in a statement. “These unethical tricks online platforms use as they battle to capture attention and manipulate users must be stopped.”

In an interview, Hurwitz described Fischer’s bill as an important first step that could encourage the industry to police itself. But he also said it illustrates the challenge of determining just what is a “dark pattern” and shutting those down.

“It’s hard to do that without banning the light patterns,” he said.

Wednesday’s hearing returned repeatedly to an analogy between common online marketing tactics and those used in the real world, as when brick-and-mortar stores arrange their aisles to keep customers in the building longer or place certain impulse items at the checkout registers.

Those pushing for more regulation say that understates the extent of the problem given that the online world is becoming the very infrastructure through which many people view reality.

Tristan Harris, executive director of the Center for Humane Technology, testified alongside Hurwitz and pointed to the video “autoplay” function of sites such as YouTube. A platform’s algorithms can continue playing video after video that tend toward extreme viewpoints, ultimately spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Hurwitz responded that such a framing assumes the tool in question will always be used nefariously. What happens if the same function was used to push the user toward more enlightening videos?

“If we say autoplay is bad, then we’re taking both of those options off the table,” Hurwitz said. “This can be used for good.”

Nebraska and Iowa’s members of Congress

Photos: Nebraska and Iowa's members of Congress

Bill banning abortion method among dozens introduced as Nebraska Legislature opens 2020 session

LINCOLN — Nebraska would join a dozen other states in attempting to ban so-called dismemberment abortions under a bill introduced during opening day of the 2020 legislative session on Wednesday.

State Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln offered Legislative Bill 814 along with 21 co-sponsors. The proposal guarantees controversy in the 60-day session and looks to become a political litmus test during a year when many lawmakers, including Geist, are seeking reelection.

The bill was one of dozens introduced Wednesday.

The measure would ban a method used for second-trimester abortions, those done from week 13 through week 24 of a woman’s pregnancy. The procedure, known medically as dilation and evacuation, includes removal of a fetus in pieces.

“I have introduced a bill this morning that will end the practice of a brutal and unthinkable abortion method here in Nebraska,” Geist said. “This procedure has no place in modern medicine and is a horrible practice in our society.”

She spoke at a morning press conference, flanked by the bill’s co-sponsors and leaders of Nebraska anti-abortion groups. Speakers labeled the procedure “gruesome,” “barbaric,” “inhumane” and “immoral.”

But abortion rights supporters said the proposal could endanger women and would be an unconstitutional violation of a woman’s right to abortion.

“Where is the woman in this bill?” asked Meg Mikolajczyk, with Planned Parenthood North Central States, which operates in five states and has clinics in Omaha and Lincoln. Both of the Nebraska clinics provide abortions and other health care services.

“It really is stripping physicians of the ability to counsel patients about the best course of care,” she said. “For some women, it is the only method that would work.”

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Similar bans are in effect in only two of the dozen states where they have passed. The rest have been ruled unconstitutional or are enjoined while they face legal challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court in June refused to hear an appeal of an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling permanently barring Alabama’s law from taking effect.

Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, said the Nebraska proposal represents an attempt to dismantle legal access to abortion. It follows previous state legislation banning so-called partial-birth abortion, another method used in the second trimester, and legislation banning almost all abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.

Geist disagreed, saying there are other methods available to women seeking abortions at that point in their pregnancy.

One option would be an injection into a woman’s abdomen or cervix that would terminate the pregnancy before the fetus is removed. Another option could be using medication to induce labor. Both add to the complexity and cost of an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy group with ties to Planned Parenthood.

Geist said she intends to pursue the bill despite questions about its constitutionality. She said those can be dealt with by the courts.

If passed, the measure would affect only a small percentage of abortions in Nebraska.

Statistics collected by the Department of Health and Human Services show there were 32 dilation and evacuation abortions in the state in 2018, or 1.5% of the total. The vast majority — 1,226 abortions — were medication-induced, with the second-most-common method being suction-curettage — 766 abortions.

LB 814 would prohibit abortions in which clamps, forceps or similar instruments are used to remove pieces of a living fetus. It would not apply if suction is used to remove pieces. Geist said the bill was not intended to address suction abortions.

She also argued that dismemberment abortions should be banned even though many occur before a fetus can feel pain. A fetus’ capacity to feel pain was the rationale behind the ban on abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation.

“Whether the unborn child feels the pain, the procedure is equally heinous,” she said.

The bill would make it a Class IV felony, punishable by up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine, for a doctor to perform a dismemberment abortion. The bill also would allow a doctor to be sued for performing such an abortion. The woman having such an abortion could not be charged.

Meet the Nebraska state senators

Meet the Nebraska state senators

Region remains on edge; Pentagon believes Iran fired with intent to kill

WASHINGTON (AP)- The U.S. and Iran stepped back from the brink of possible war Wednesday as President Donald Trump signaled he would not retaliate militarily for Iran's missile strikes on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops.

No one was harmed in the strikes, but U.S. forces in the region remained on high alert.

Speaking from the White House, Trump seemed intent on deescalating the crisis, which spiraled after he authorized the targeted killing last week of Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani. Iran responded with its most direct assault on America since the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, firing more than a dozen missiles at two installations in Iraq. The Pentagon said Wednesday that it believed Iran fired with the intent to kill.

Even so, Trump's takeaway was that "Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world."

Despite such conciliatory talk, the region remained on edge, and American troops, including a quick-reaction force dispatched over the weekend, were on high alert. Last week Iranian-backed militia besieged the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and Tehran's proxies in the region remain able to carry out attacks such as the one Dec. 27 that killed a U.S. contractor and set off the most recent round of hostilities.

Hours after Trump spoke, an "incoming" siren went off in Baghdad's Green Zone after what seemed to be small rockets "impacted" the diplomatic area, a Western official said. There were no reports of casualties.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that it was "perhaps too early to tell" if Iran will be satisfied that the strikes were sufficient to avenge Soleimani's death.

"We should have some expectation," Defense Secretary Mark Esper added in a Wednesday briefing, "that Shiite militia groups, either directed or not directed by Iran, will continue in some way, shape or form to try and undermine our presence there," either politically or militarily.

There is no obvious path to diplomatic engagement, as Trump pledged to add to his "maximum pressure" campaign of economic sanctions. He said the new, unspecified sanctions would remain in place "until Iran changes its behavior."

Milley and Esper told reporters that a total of 16missiles were fired from three locations in Iran. Eleven hit the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq's western Anbar province and one targeted a base in Irbil in Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region. The missiles were described as likely short-range with 1,000 to 2,000-pound warheads. Four failed to detonate, they said.

Milley added that the Pentagon believes that Iran fired the missiles with the intent "to kill personnel."

"I believe based on what I saw and what I know is that they were intended to cause structural damage, destroy vehicles and equipment and aircraft and to kill personnel," Milley said.

He praised early warning systems, which detected the incoming ballistic missiles well in advance, providing U.S. and coalition forces time to take shelter at both bases. He called the damage to tents, parking lots and a helicopter, among other things, as "nothing major."

Officials also said that the U.S. was aware of preparations for the attack. It's unclear if any intelligence identified specific targets or was more general.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the overnight strike was not necessarily the totality of Iran's response.

"Last night they received a slap," he said. "These military actions are not sufficient (for revenge). What is important is that the corrupt presence of America in this region comes to an end."

Trump, facing perhaps the biggest test of his presidency, said Americans should be "extremely grateful and happy" that no one was harmed in the attacks.

The strikes had pushed Tehran and Washington perilously close to all-out conflict and left the world waiting to see whether the American president would respond with more military force. Trump, in his nine-minute, televised address, spoke of a robust U.S. military with missiles that are "big, powerful, accurate, lethal and fast." But then he added: "We do not want to use it."

Iran for days had been promising to respond forcefully to Soleimani's killing, but its limited strike on two bases — one in the northern Iraqi city in Irbil and the other at Ain al-Asad in western Iraq — appeared to signal that it, too, was uninterested in a wider clash with the U.S. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the country had "concluded proportionate measures in self-defense."

Trump, facing reelection in November, campaigned for president on a promise to extract the United States from "endless wars."

OnWednesday, he said the U.S. was "ready to embrace peace with all who seek it." That marked a sharp change in tone from his warning a day earlier that "if Iran does anything that they shouldn't be doing, they're going to be suffering the consequences, and very strongly."

Members of Congress were briefed on the Iran situation Wednesday in closeddoor sessions, where Democrats and some Republicans expressed dissatisfaction with the administration's justifications for the drone strike on Soleimani.

Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said it was "probably the worst briefing I've seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I've served in the United States Senate." He said it was "distressing" that officials suggested it would embolden Iran if lawmakers debated the merits of further military action.

Trump opened his remarks by reiterating his promise that "Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon." Iran had said in the wake of Soleimani's killing it would no longer comply with limits on uranium enrichment in the 2015 nuclear deal crafted to keep it from building a nuclear device.


Democrats: Speaker Nancy Pelosi set a House vote for Thursday on limiting President Donald Trump's ability to take military action against Iran. She said the drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was "provocative and disproportionate." A similar Senate bill isn't likely to pass.

Rerouting: Commercial airlines are rerouting flights throughout the Middle East to avoid potential danger over Iraq and Iran. "In a war situation, the first casualty is always air transport, said Dubai-based aviation consult Mark Martin, pointing to airline bankruptcies during the Persian Gulf and Yugoslav wars.

And, a quake: A 4.9-magnitude earthquake struck Iran near the Bushehr nuclear power plant on Wednesday, during a day when Iran launched missiles and a plane crash killed 176 people. The plant was designed to withstand stronger quakes. — AP and the Washington Post