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Omaha police want to change law on releasing grand jury report when an officer is indicted

November 6, 2018

Omaha’s police chief wants to tweak a law designed to make grand juries more open.

Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said a bill by State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha two years ago had the unintended consequence of making public a grand jury’s final report in cases when an officer is indicted.

Evidence, including transcripts and exhibits, should be released, Schmaderer said, but not immediately. That information should be released after an officer’s criminal proceedings are over, he said.

“Law enforcement officers are like everybody else,” he said. “They deserve proper due process in their cases, and this little cleanup will ensure that takes place.”

Chambers said that at first blush, the proposal sounds reasonable, but he promised to take a “microscopic-type” look at any proposed legislation.

“I’m willing to look at it and talk to (Schmaderer),” Chambers said. “He has always shown that he is acting in good faith. He knows that I am, too.”

The proposal is one of several under consideration to be City of Omaha priorities for the 2019 session of the Nebraska Legislature. On Tuesday, the City Council will hold a public hearing and vote on whether to advocate for the bills when state senators convene at the State Capitol in January.

Schmaderer said the grand jury proposal has the support of Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine and Anthony Conner, president of the Omaha Police Officers Association, the police union.

Grand juries are called to investigate deaths of people who are in custody or being apprehended by law enforcement. Schmaderer estimated that Omaha police deal with 10 or fewer in-custody deaths each year. He noted that they can include instances in which people die while police are taking them to jail.

Conner said discussions about the proposal were sparked by the Zachary Bearheels case. Bearheels, who was mentally ill, died after an encounter with police last year. A grand jury filed a misdemeanor assault charge against one of the officers involved in that case and a felony second-degree assault charge and weapon use charge against another.

The World-Herald and television station KETV jointly filed a motion to release the transcripts of the grand jury proceedings. A judge granted their release, and the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office appealed.

Conner and Schmaderer said information should still be released right away in the event a grand jury doesn’t produce an indictment.

Among the other proposals to be considered by the council:

» Mayor Jean Stothert and Omaha police want a bill introduced that would increase the penalty for witness, jury or evidence tampering.

After murder charges were dismissed against a man accused of killing Army Sgt. Kyle LeFlore, State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha said he would introduce a bill to increase the penalty for witness tampering to the equivalent of the underlying crime.

» Councilwoman Aimee Melton wants to support a bill, if introduced, that would allow Tranquility Park developers to use turnback tax, which directs a portion of the new state sales taxes generated around an arena to go back into the project.

State Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha introduced a bill last session that would have allowed outdoor sports complexes like Tranquility to qualify for the arena-financing incentive.

Melton said the proposal could help improvements move forward at the popular west Omaha park. Last year, Millard United Sports said it had ideas for the park to help bring larger-scale youth sports events to the city.

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