A review last year of the Nebraska State Patrol prompted Gov. Pete Ricketts to request the Legislature to correct a number of issues that cropped up during that assessment.
The resulting bill (LB792), introduced by Sen. Laura Ebke at Ricketts' request, would expand the duties and authority of the Nebraska Crime Commission to track officers who leave a law enforcement agency under certain conditions.
It would also repeal a section of law that requires the state attorney general to defend troopers against criminal actions, thus removing a conflict of interest from that office.
The bill was opposed by the state troopers' union and other police organizations.
Jason Jackson, Ricketts' chief human resources officer, said the bill grew out of a review by his office of the State Patrol that led to the firing of Col. Brad Rice and subsequently the discipline, firing, resignation or retirement of other patrol administrators and troopers.
Jackson said when he did the review, he expected to find process defects and policy violations.
"What I did not expect to find was the degree to which Nebraska state law and the state's labor contract ... operate together to undermine transparency and accountability at the Nebraska State Patrol," Jackson said.
One of the problems was that the patrol was unable to provide evidence of officer misconduct to the Crime Commission.
"A bad-actor cop who is dishonest or who preys upon our citizens should not be able to hop from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and continue to wear the uniform of a Nebraska law enforcement officer," he said.
Jackson supplied the committee with several examples of that, including a recent Lincoln Journal Star article about a former Lincoln police officer who was found to have engaged in an "inappropriate relationship" and who is now employed by the Omaha Police Department.
The labor contract bars that reporting, he said. And the Crime Commission cannot subpoena those records. LB792 would correct that.
Proponent Daryl Fisher, executive director of the Crime Commission, said the bill would create a process for the commission, and eventually the Police Standards Advisory Council, to be notified any time an officer is terminated or allowed to resign or retire for incompetence, neglect of duty, conviction of a felony, dishonesty or for other specific circumstances.
"This notification is necessary, because we feel this has become a matter of public trust and there must be transparency and accuracy in reporting change of status of officers to the commission," Fisher said.
Kurt Frazey, legislative liaison from the State Troopers Association of Nebraska, said he agreed with the intent of the bill, but wanted to see it put aside until the union could discuss changes with the Crime Commission. He said parts of the bill had poorly-defined terms and were overly-broad, with the potential to deny officers due process. An appeals process should be discussed, he said.
Gary Young, attorney with the union, said the bill was trying to fix a problem that does not exist. If the attorney general is concerned about a particular case that is creating a conflict, state law says he or she can eliminate the conflict by appointing a private attorney to represent the trooper.
The bill, as written, was also opposed by the Omaha Police Officers Association and the Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police. They said the bill was overreaching, and created concerns about due process rights of officers.
"All we're saying is the bill needs to be improved," said Jim Maguire, president of the Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers said he'd like to see the bill advanced and then anyone can propose changes in writing and submit them.
"This is the time for action," he said. "The bill, I'm hoping, will move forward expeditiously."
Another bill (LB883) that grew out of the review and subsequent revelations of trooper misconduct was one that would provide for the appointment of an independent prosecutor to investigate crimes by state officials or employees when the state attorney general had a conflict of interest.
Omaha Sen. Burke Harr, who introduced the bill, said the authority would be the same as county attorneys have to appoint an independent prosecutor. Harr had asked Attorney General Doug Peterson to appoint that investigator last year, but Peterson had replied he did not have the authority.
"Why would you not want to cure that conflict?" Harr said. "I do. I think they should. And that's why I brought this legislation."
James Smith, solicitor general in the attorney general's office, had a different answer: The bill is unnecessary. Two alternatives already exist under Nebraska law that have been used successfully to investigate and prosecute officials who have committed crimes.
The bill creates one more expensive, unneeded and unlimited layer of government bureaucracy, he said.