On the eve of a crucial Omaha City Council vote, two groups of local law enforcement officers are weighing in on the proposed Douglas County justice center.

The Nebraska chapter of the National Latino Peace Officers Association unequivocally backed the proposal, saying that it would lead to better services and that a yes vote from the council would lead to needed juvenile justice reform and make the community safer.

The Black Police Officers Association of Omaha was more equivocal. It expressed opposition to incarcerating nonviolent juvenile offenders and backed the concept of putting detention, courts and services together. But the group stopped short of endorsing the proposal, expressing concern about the size of the proposed detention center.

The council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the proposed financing for the $114 million construction of a courthouse annex and a new, smaller juvenile detention center in downtown Omaha.

The Latino Peace Officers Association said in a letter to the council that the group is confident that the proposed complex will help young people with needed services that will reduce recidivism rates.

“We believe a one-stop shop with quality services will better reach kids and families of color that are disproportionately represented, jailed, in the criminal justice system,” the LPOA’s letter says. “The juvenile justice court system is currently inefficient and a yes vote on this resolution is the first step in ensuring juvenile justice reform is a priority in Omaha to make it a safer place for all.”

The letter is signed by the group’s president, Omaha Police Detective Johnny Palermo. The LPOA board’s vice president is Deputy Omaha Police Chief Greg Gonzalez.

The organization, which has received national awards for its work with at-risk kids, noted that its membership of Omaha-area law enforcement officers includes many people who work in violent crime units. They “understand first-hand the danger and challenges police face on a daily basis when dealing with violent criminals,” the letter says.

“We believe violent criminals must be held accountable and separated from the general community, as public safety is of utmost importance,” the letter says. “We also know that the goal is to keep nonviolent offenders out of the criminal justice system.”

Citing the financial support of philanthropic organizations such as the Sherwood Foundation, the group expressed confidence that there will be more programs “that aim to rehabilitate rather than warehouse youth.”

The Black Police Officers Association’s letter to the council says the organization strongly supports “the idea of building a juvenile justice center and the concept of having a multi-purpose facility that services the city of Omaha.” It says that the group’s leaders “stand firm in our belief that nonviolent youth offenders should NOT be incarcerated or held in identical housing as violent offenders” and that they are “deeply concerned about the disproportionate amount of minority youth who have been incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.”

The letter, signed by the association’s president, Omaha Police Sgt. Marcus D. Taylor, says the group supports the commitment to provide services and programs that could help nonviolent juvenile offenders.

But it says there should be contingency plans to expand the detention center if the need arises.

“With the current proposal, our hope is that the agreed upon number of beds is adequate to prepare for the continued growth of the city over the next 20 years, and that there is flexibility to adapt to unexpected trends in regard to violent crime,” the letter says.

Omaha police union leaders have opposed the detention center part of the proposal, saying it would be too small. The proposal calls for 64 beds. Douglas County’s current juvenile detention center has a capacity of 96.

Palermo said in an interview that the LPOA agrees that “the violent ones, we gotta hold them to the fire, incarcerate them.” But he said the group thinks that programming, reforms and efficiencies will lead to a reduced need for detention.

“A golden opportunity should not be derailed just because of a few beds,” he said. “We’ve got three years until this facility would be built. We can work on the beds.”

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Chris Burbach covers the Douglas County Board, Planning Board and other local government bodies, as well as local neighborhood issues. Follow him on Twitter @chrisburbach. Phone: 402-444-1057.

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