LINCOLN — State Sen. Ernie Chambers touched off a firestorm of criticism Wednesday after comments surfaced in which he compared police officers to the terrorist group that has beheaded American journalists and other captives during its violent takeover of parts of Syria and Iraq.
During a public hearing Friday about a bill involving concealed handguns, Chambers said residents of his north Omaha district were more in fear of police than of extremist groups such as the Islamic State.
“My ISIS is the police. Nobody from ISIS ever terrorized us as a people as the police do us daily. And they get away with it,” the African-American senator said, using an acronym for the militant group.
His comments, picked up Wednesday by Fox News, drew a rebuke from fellow State Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, who called them “appalling.”
“I think Senator Chambers owes those who wear the uniform of law enforcement an apology,” McCoy said on the floor of the Legislature.
Later Wednesday, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer and Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson joined in, condemning the senator in separate press releases.
"The senator should be looking for ways to improve public safety instead of comparing police officers to terrorists," Stothert said.
Schmaderer called Chambers’ comments "unbecoming of a state senator."
Peterson said the senator’s comments were "the most offensive statement I have ever heard made by a public official.
On Thursday, Gov. Pete Ricketts also called on Chambers to issue a public apology.
"As public officials, we are held to a higher standard, and we should be. No one should ever suggest the use of violence against law enforcement officials," the governor said in a statement.
Chambers, in an interview with The World-Herald and later on the floor of the Legislature, stood his ground, calling on McCoy and other critics to listen to the entire recording of the committee’s hearing to “hear what I actually said.”
“I will continue strongly and vociferously to criticize police,” Chambers said. “I will continue to condemn the police when they are wrong. And in my community, they are wrong.”
Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings, who presided over the committee hearing in which the original comments were made, said he didn’t find them alarming.
“I don’t think it was anything other than Ernie being Ernie,” said Seiler, chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
The firestorm erupted Wednesday morning, when McCoy took to the floor of the Legislature to note that Fox News was talking about Nebraska “and not in a flattering light.”
By afternoon, the mayor and police chief had weighed in. Even before that, Chambers said, his legislative office had fielded several ugly phone calls criticizing him.
Chambers made the remarks, based on a recorded transcript of the hearing, during an exchange with Bellevue Sen. Tommy Garrett as Garrett made his closing statement about Legislative Bill 635, his bill to allow concealed handguns in bars and restaurants that sell liquor.
Chambers asked Garrett what patrons were so afraid of that they needed to carry concealed weapons into such establishments.
Garrett responded that people are insecure about crime and the radicalized “world situation.” Garrett said, “You were making a very good point earlier about ISIS and ISIL and the Taliban.”
Chambers replied, “My ISIS is the police.”
Chambers, who has frequently criticized Omaha police, then criticized Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine for not prosecuting an Omaha police officer, Alvin Lugod, in connection with the Feb. 23 fatal shooting of a robbery suspect, Danny Elrod. Chambers also spoke of the “injustice” in other police-related shootings.
“My home isn’t threatened by ISIS. It’s threated by the police,” he said. “The police are licensed to kill us. Children. Old people.”
Chambers, 77, said that he didn’t have a gun and wasn’t “a man of violence,” but said that if he were, he would use the weapon for protection against the police.
“I would want to shoot him first and ask questions later, as they say the cop ought to do,” he said.
The comments were first publicized by a talk show Friday on Lincoln radio station KFOR. That spawned a story by Nebraska Watchdog, which was picked up by Fox News. Then the story was cited by McCoy, a Republican who has often clashed with Chambers, a registered independent.
McCoy said the gun violence plaguing Chambers’ district is “tragic” but should not be compared to the atrocities committed by the Islamic State, often called by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL.
Said Stothert, “Why would any elected official state if he had a gun he would shoot a police officer? ... He owes an apology not only to Omaha police officers but to every citizen of Omaha.”
Chambers was off the floor when McCoy spoke. But later he defended his comments and said they were in the context of criticizing the lack of prosecution of Officer Lugod. The officer resigned Tuesday.
Danielle Savington of Papillion, an attorney and part-time waitress who attended Friday’s hearing, said Chambers’ comments were not “smart” but were “twisted” out of context.
“I know from past experience that Senator Chambers gets riled up,” said Savington, who opposes allowing concealed guns in restaurants.
Garrett did not respond immediately to a phone message, but during Friday’s hearing he did not object to Chambers’ comments. Garrett did say the vast majority of police officers were not “bad apples.”
Chambers attributed the dust-up to McCoy’s feeling “stung” by Chambers’ criticism that McCoy used his legislative post to gain a new job.
McCoy was recently hired by Charles Herbster, a Falls City, Nebraska, businessman who bankrolled McCoy’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign last year.
World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, email@example.com
Concealed gun bill hearing (Chambers' remarks begin around 51:06)
More audio of Chambers' remarks