Two law enforcement groups pushed back on a bill considered by Nebraska lawmakers on Friday that would prohibit private arbitration of claims involving disciplinary actions against peace officers.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers told lawmakers he does not like the arbitration process because it is not open to the public, and disciplinary action reports are not available under the public records law. He would prefer to see a personnel board or the court system deal with disciplinary cases against police officers. Chambers also said he'd be fine with the arbitration process if the public were allowed to sit in on the proceedings.
"Taxpayers have the right to total disclosure of how public employees hired and paid by their tax dollars are behaving and misbehaving," he said. "The right of the public to know transcends any desire for secrecy of alleged wrongdoing of public employees. "
The Omaha Police Officers Association and the State Troopers Association of Nebraska are open to making the proceedings and records public, but do not want to eliminate an officer's right to arbitration. As written, the bill (LB541) would prevent arbitration claims involving disciplinary action against peace officers.
"We want to continue arbitrating these disputes," said Bill Miller, representing the state troopers association. "We are for arbitration and we are for public disclosure of that."
Omaha Police Officer Association President John Wells agreed, saying arbitration costs less and is quicker than going through the courts. He also said it is important that officers' disciplinary cases are heard by a third party that is truly independent.
"Taking away arbitration would take away due process," he said.
Chambers said he brought this bill after he was denied a copy of an arbitration claim involving Omaha police officer Jackie Dolinsky, who was discharged from the police force and then reinstated last year. The city and police union issued a statement after the officer was reinstated.
"Had Senator Chambers called me, I would have given him a copy of the case," Wells said.
Dolinsky was involved in an arrest at Creighton University Medical Center in May 2011, and video footage showed her kicking a man under arrest while other officers pinned him down. Officer Aaron Pennington also was reinstated to the force after an arbitrator found that city attorneys did not provide sufficient evidence he had used excessive force while arresting the man.
Chambers said he was suspicious of the final outcome because he doesn't know what evidence the city submitted to show the officers used excessive force. He said he thinks the Omaha Police Department didn't want to assume liability for the incident, so the third-party arbitrator wasn't given sufficient evidence to say the officers should have been fired.
"The Omaha Police Department union wields tremendous influence and power and I think they are accountable to nobody -- not to the mayor; not to the chief and certainly not to the public," Chambers said.