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Alisha Shelton speaks to members of the Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee in Omaha last week. “I want protection for bystanders to be able to say, if you’re not going to check yourself if you are draining the life out of somebody, I’m going to tell you to stop,” she said. 

During last week’s legislative Judiciary Committee “listening sessions” stemming from protests after the police killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, more than 180 Nebraskans, most of them black, shared frustrations about their interactions with police and lack of change over many years.

After 15 hours of testimony, senators vowed action — though they said much of it likely must wait until next year because of legislative rules and just 17 days left in this year’s pandemic-suspended session.

By week’s end, 150 Omaha-area corporate leaders had signed onto a statement vowing to address racial injustice.

They promised to use their influence to endorse policies that lead to racial justice, to continue the conversation and to hire and advance people of color.

David Brown, chamber president and CEO, said, “it’s time we do something about this.”

Yes, it is — long past time.

This newspaper made similar promises last weekend, vowing that “we will launch efforts to be inclusive, to improve outreach and to give a platform to diverse voices ... We will join with the community in work to move forward.”

But talk is easy — for all of us. Sustaining our commitment, taking meaningful action and making real change is the test we all face.

Because we have been here before, many times and for a long time.

The Kerner Commission in 1968, after urban unrest in the preceding years, called for “a commitment to national action — compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.”

That didn’t happen. More than 50 years later, while black Americans’ educational attainment has improved, home ownership, unemployment and incarceration rates have changed little. The wealth gap is stunning, with the Brookings Institution finding median net worth of black households just 10% that of whites.

Nor was this condition, cited in Kerner, overcome: “To some (black people) police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. ... The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among (blacks) in the existence of police brutality and in a ‘double standard’ of justice and protection — one for (blacks) and one for whites.” In Nebraska today, more than a quarter of prison inmates are black even though only 5% of state residents are black.

Yes, it is time for change. Long past time.

So we call on the Legislature to take at least one easy step: Pass Sen. Ernie Chambers’ Legislative Bill 924, which is on final reading and would require all law enforcement officers to take two hours of racial anti-bias and implicit bias training per year.

The Iowa Legislature, in 10 days’ work, sent to Gov. Kim Reynolds legislation that requires such training. It also bans most police chokeholds, allows the Iowa attorney general to investigate deaths caused by an officer and prevents officers from being hired in Iowa if they have been convicted of a felony, fired for misconduct or quit to avoid being fired for misconduct.

If the Nebraska Legislature can’t act that quickly this year, it must launch deep and serious interim studies on police oversight, use of chokeholds and transparency of officer conduct. Lawmakers, too, should examine what we ask of police and ensure that the state not make them default social workers for the homeless and mentally ill.

Then those Omaha CEOs, other business leaders and this newspaper must not lose interest in scrutinizing proposed laws and advocating for change.

The Rev. Janet Goodman-Banks of Lincoln had it right when she told lawmakers, “We black and brown people are asking what’s in your heart. We need you to act, not tomorrow, not next year. We need you to act now.”

It’s time. Long past time.

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