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Legislature
editor's pick topical alert top story
Police standards bill draws as many opponents as supporters

The Legislature's Urban Affairs Committee heard three hours of testimony on a police standards bill Friday afternoon, but the hearing ended abruptly when the chairman announced someone in the room had been exposed to COVID-19.

Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner had just sat down to testify when Chairman Justin Wayne announced the hearing was canceled, but would accept emailed testimony until Monday.

The bill (LB1222), for which Wayne sought suspension of the rules last week to introduce outside the regulation period, would require every city that employs full-time police officers to appoint a Citizen Police Oversight Board to monitor, investigate and evaluate police standards and practices. 

According to the Nebraska Crime Commission, 106 cities or villages employ full-time police officers, Wayne said, but many would have fewer police than those on the proposed boards. 

The boards would have seven members of the public appointed by the mayor with approval of the city council. Board members would be prohibited from serving on the board if they are or previously have been affiliated with any law enforcement agency, department or office of that city or county.

KENNETH FERRIERA, Journal Star 

Senators and legal counsel Friday listen to concerned citizens during a hearing on a police standards bill introduced by Sen. Justin Wayne.

Many of those testifying in favor of the bill told the committee about police brutality in both Lincoln and Omaha during recent Black Lives Matter protests. 

A number of them also said although the bill was a good first step, it was not enough. 

Most of those in opposition were police chiefs, police union officials and mayors. Some were concerned such a board could compromise active police investigations, or officers' names and other information could be released early in an investigation, endangering officers or their families. 

Victim-advocacy groups have raised concerns about the sensitivity of some documents that could be made public by an oversight board during an assault investigation, for example. 

KENNETH FERRIERA, Journal Star 

A yellow light shines bright signaling that half of a speaker's time is up during a hearing on bill LB1222 hosted by Sen. Justin Wayne at the Nebraska State Capitol on Friday.

Lincoln and Omaha police said their departments both have a form of citizen police advisory or complaint review boards, but Wayne said those boards are more advisory than independent oversight. 

"There are just a lot of technical issues that we are going to continue to work through here," Wayne said. "The bill is far from perfect. I know there's very little time remaining in the session."

But he wanted to hear from both sides, he said, because this may turn into a broader bill or bills going into next year. Wayne said many of those protesting since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police have cried out for a wide variety of police reforms. 

Michaela Chambers, great-niece of Sen. Ernie Chambers, said that last Saturday, she was arrested and taken to a jail cell where she sat with a transient woman, who was there because of a domestic abuse charge. 

"That was my gift for peacefully demonstrating that black lives matter," she said.  

While she is a supporter of the bill, she said it was a "slap in the face" to those who were arrested, and not enough. 

KENNETH FERRIERA, Journal Star 

Elizabeth Casas stands holding a sign in support of LB1222 during a Stand in Nebraska rally outside of the state Capitol on Friday.

"I believe that this is the tip of the iceberg and I believe that you, as our elected officials, can do and should do more for us to protect us as your citizens, to allow us to have our right to freedom of speech and for that right to not be taken away by the brutality and the aggression shown by sworn officers who made an oath to protect us as citizens."

Bianca Swift, a university student and a member of the recently created policy committee of Lincoln's Malone Center, said she agreed that while the bill is not enough, it is most certainly a step in the right direction. 

Every good system needs checks and balances, Swift said. The state's police forces must answer to someone other than themselves. At a two-hour police-accountability meeting recently at the Malone Center, she said, "the injustices that so many community members face made my skin crawl.

"It becomes interesting to me, then, how there does not seem to be a large record of discrimination or harm done within the (Lincoln Police Department) when it's so evident at those meetings."

Jeannette Eileen Jones-Bazansky said that for well more than a century, the use of excessive force by law enforcement in matters involving Black people has created an environment of distrust and anxiety between police and the communities they have sworn to protect and serve. 

KENNETH FERRIERA, Journal Star 

Terrell McKinney sits behind a row of marked off chairs during a hearing on bill LB1222 hosted by Sen. Justin Wayne at the state Capitol on Friday. Only 20 people were allowed into the hearing chamber at a time while all others had to wait outside for their turn

On the opponents' side, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert testified that she and the police department there are listening and responding to demands for police reform and revising police department policy, requiring additional training and strengthening the process for citizen complaints. 

But the bill would not result in meaningful change, she said. This month she changed a policy so that citizens can make complaints directly to the Citizen Complaint Review Board and the board will now produce an annual report to the public. 

She said Omaha does not get a lot of complaints filed against its officers. Last year, the board only had three complaints to review and this year five. 

Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister said the bill is well-intentioned, and LPD embraces the spotlight of accountability on its actions. But the bill's flaws include a disregard for existing local oversight, threats to the integrity of ongoing investigations, the expense of an unfunded mandate and a lack of evidence the measure would be effective. 

The bill would inhibit the cooperation of witnesses, Bliemeister said, jeopardize a person's right to a fair trial and undermine public trust with the release of personal details provided by victims. With Lincoln's existing board, the names of complainants and officers remain confidential.

KENNETH FERRIERA, Journal Star 

Sen. Justin Wayne listens to citizens comments during a hearing on bill LB1222 hosted by at the state Capitol on Friday.

Sen. Sue Crawford asked about any written procedures LPD has for addressing protests and the use of rubber bullets and tear gas. 

Police are trained how to respond when protests devolve into criminal acts of property damage or violence, Bliemeister said. 

"The Lincoln Police Department and every member of our agency supports the right to express your First Amendment rights. We're going to do that whether you agree or disagree with our actions, and do our very best to make that safe environment," he said.  

Photos, videos: Protests in Lincoln

Photos, videos: Violent and peaceful protests in Lincoln over George Floyd's death

National
AP
Rural Pennsylvanians solve slow internet problem

Big Valley is a living postcard of Pennsylvania. Jet-black buggies hug the shoulders of its long, straight roads and knobby-kneed foals prance in fields so green they look electrified. Most signs there urge motorists to repent and rejoice, or to buy fresh strawberries from the Amish children sitting in the shade.

But one Pennsylvania tradition also plagued residents who live in this sweeping landscape: slow, unreliable and expensive internet service. The government couldn't help. Private suppliers have long said improved speeds were too costly to provide for such a sparsely populated area. So a group of mostly retirees banded together and took a frontier approach to a modern problem. They built their own wireless network, using radio signals instead of expensive cable.

"We just wanted better internet service up our valley. It was pretty simple as that," said Kevin Diven, a founding member of the Rural Broadband Cooperative.

The nonprofit RBC serves anyone who can see the 120-foot, former HAM radio tower its founders bought and erected on a patch of land they lease from an Amish man at about 1,900 feet on Stone Mountain, 180 miles from Philadelphia. Users pay an initial set-up fee of about $300, and monthly costs for the service are about $40 to $75, depending on the speeds you choose, ranging from 5 to 25 megabits per second.

The RBC has almost 40 paying customers.

"We love living out here," said customer Helena Kotala, of Jackson Corner. "It's just that the internet totally sucked."

A Pennsylvania State University research project conducted in 2018 found that internet speeds in the state were dismal. Counties such as Sullivan and Wyoming in the northeast, along with vast areas in and near the Allegheny National Forest in the northwest, had the slowest speeds. Some were as dismal as 0 to 3 megabits per second, far below the FCC's 25 mbps benchmark for "high speed." A 2016 Federal Communications Commission report estimated that 39% of rural Americans, about 23 million people, had no access to 25 mbps service.

In Pennsylvania, the number of people without access to high-speed internet is 803,645, about 6% of the state's total population.

The Philadelphia suburbs had the highest speeds.

The areas of Mifflin and Huntingdon counties that the RBC serves often had speeds less than 2 mbps, Diven said. He was served by Verizon and said he was frequently in touch with the company about improving speeds. Verizon representatives often attended local meetings about the issue. Comcast, he said, wanted $80,000 to lay high-speed internet cable for about 8 miles.

"I tried the FCC and the PUC (Pennsylvania's Public Utility Commission) and got nowhere," said Diven, who had hoped they would intervene with the private providers.

The problem of slow internet speeds isn't something that anyone rages about, but it's a consistent problem from coast to coast, made even more noticeable during the pandemic. In some parts of Pennsylvania, online learning was not possible for school districts.

Kotala, 30, works as the mapping coordinator for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and has to download large files to her computer daily. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she left her office in State College and started working from home, where downloads screeched to a halt.

After one month of quarantine, she bought into the RBC and loves the service.

"I had already gotten rid of Netflix because watching any movie online was a nightmare," she said. "I would have to sit there and wait for stuff to download or upload and just go do something for a while."

The RBC's members did all the work starting in 2017, saving money by divvying up talents and livelihoods. About 25 people kicked in $60,000 for the project. Some worked in construction, others in engineering. One was a former genomics professor at Penn State, another retired from the U.S Army. Brandon Beck, the RBC's president, was a professional musician in the Tampa Bay area, playing the French horn. They pooled their money to clear the land, buy the tower and equipment, and pour concrete for the bunker that houses the electronics, which includes two banks of batteries intended to propel Nissan's electric car, the Leaf.

"They were available," Beck said, explaining the batteries.

Power is supplied through solar panels, with a back-up wind generator.

The signal went live in 2019. Unlike traditional DSL or satellite-based wireless, the RBC taps into an existing fiber line it turns into a radio signal that bounces off a dish fastened to a three-pump gas station in Allensville. The signal races across Big Valley, then up the mountain past buzzards and ravens. The signal can be bounced off other dishes and relayed to other homes, much like a laser off mirrors. Each home has its own small dish to receive the wireless signal from the tower.

The signal can service a 15-mile radius. Fixed wireless systems are "line of sight," meaning users have to be able to see the tower from their residences in order to connect. Sometimes, trees block it.

"Leaves," Beck said. "Leaves are the enemy."

Tom Bracken, an RBC board member, said pines are the worst.

"If you're going to try to shoot through pines," Bracken said, "just hang it up and go home."

Bracken, retired from the U.S. Army, said fixed wireless systems exist all over the world and rural communities can emulate what the RBC did.

"You have to tap into the skills of your community," he said. "You never know who your neighbor is and what they can do."


Govt-and-politics
editor's pick alert top story
COVID-19 risk dial improves slightly as city's mask mandate continues

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department has moved its COVID-19 risk dial to the low-orange range, still considered high-risk but an improvement from last week's rating of mid-orange. 

The change, announced at Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird's coronavirus briefing Friday, comes as Lincoln's mask mandate nears the end of its second week and was prompted by trends observed in the risk dial's key indicators.

Interim Health Director Pat Lopez said each of those five indicators, which include new case counts and positive test percentages, have trended downward or remained steady over the past week.  

The mayor announced 29 new COVID-19 cases in the community Friday, bringing the total to 3,021. The death toll in Lancaster County remains at 15. In all, 1,279 local people have recovered, and hospitalizations remain at 19, including 12 Lancaster County residents. 

The mask mandate has been helpful in reducing spread, Lopez said, and public buy-in has been vital to its success. 

“Most people are doing a great job in wearing face coverings," she said. 

The slight improvements celebrated in Lincoln on Friday came as Omaha officials who seemed set on enacting a similar mask mandate opted against it after the Nebraska Attorney General's office challenged the city's ability to enact one.

Lincoln's mandate is not being challenged, Lopez said, because the city-county health department predates the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, offering an exemption of sorts from state control.

The local average weekly case count — a key factor in the risk dial's placement — has shown signs of leveling off since the mandate began July 20, Lopez said, and positive test rates may have begun to trend downward again.

Testing capacity and availability remain high, Lopez said, as more than 5,000 residents were tested this week, bringing the county's total to 44,000 tests.

“Unlike many locations in the country," she said, "testing capacity and availability is not an issue here.”

Lopez said the department would like to see a faster turnaround on results from testing laboratories, which would allow local health officials to begin contact tracing sooner on positive cases, but that is out of the department's control. Once it receives the information, she said, the department has adequate staff and resources to meet the demand for contact tracing in the community.

Hospital capacity remains healthy locally, Lopez said, with nearly 50% of ICU beds and 90% of ventilators still available. 

On the whole, she said, things are headed in the right direction, but further adherence to preventative measures is the only way to continue the positive trends.

“We are still in orange, and the risk of spread remains high," Lopez said.

Epidemiologist Raju Kakarlapudi said the health department closely tracks measures and metrics to place the dial accurately each week. Those parameters are based on information from sources such as Johns Hopkins and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and have been regularly updated throughout the pandemic to reflect updated scientific discoveries on the virus and its spread.

Kakarlapudi said the dial provides a robust descriptor of the pandemic's course in the area and provides a reference for public policy decisions by taking several factors into account at once.

Gaylor Baird said that while the dial and its placement has become a lightning rod for public opinion, it provides a considerable amount of information to the public in a succinct manner. 

“Our health department has taken great care to look at the big picture,” Gaylor Baird said.

The dial's lower placement and the ability to safely stage large gatherings such as Lincoln Public Schools' graduation ceremonies give the department hope that further reopening efforts can be successful, Lopez said. The department worked with Pinewood Bowl ahead of the Beach Boys' concert scheduled there this weekend, and officials will closely follow case counts and contact tracing related to the event next week. 

Statewide, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services reported 445 new cases Friday, bringing the number of total cases to 26,211.

There were four deaths reported in the state Friday, which raised the total to 332. The total number of people tested for the virus rose to 275,544.

Photos: Lincoln during the pandemic


National
AP
Black voters wary of voting by mail

DETROIT — Despite fears that the coronavirus pandemic will worsen, Victor Gibson said he's not planning to take advantage of Michigan's expanded vote-by-mail system when he casts his ballot in November.

The retired teacher from Detroit just isn't sure he can trust it. Many Black Americans share similar concerns and are planning to vote in person on Election Day, even as mail-in voting expands to more states as a safety precaution during the pandemic.

For many, historical skepticism of a system that tried to keep Black people from the polls and worries that a mailed ballot won't get counted outweigh the prospect of long lines and health dangers from a virus that's disproportionately affected communities of color. Ironically, suspicion of mail-in voting aligns with the views of President Donald Trump, whom many Black voters want out of office.

Trump took it a step further Tuesday, suggesting a "delay" to the Nov. 3 presidential election — which would take an act of Congress — as he made unsubstantiated allegations in a tweet that increased mail-in voting will result in fraud.

"I would never change my mind" about voting in person in November, said Gibson, who is Black and hopes Trump loses. "I always feel better sliding my ballot in. We've heard so many controversies about missing absentee ballots."

Decades of disenfranchisement are at the heart of the uneasy choice facing Black voters, one of the Democratic Party's most important voting groups. Widespread problems with mail-in ballots during this year's primary elections added to the skepticism at a time when making Black voices heard has taken on new urgency during a national reckoning over racial injustice.

Patricia Harris of McDonough, Georgia, south of Atlanta, voted in person in the primary and said she will do the same in November.

"I simply do not trust mail-in or absentee ballots," said Harris, 73, a retired event coordinator at Albany State University. "After the primary and the results were in, there were thousands of absentee ballots not counted."

In Georgia, roughly 12,500 mail-in ballots were rejected in the state's June primary, while California tossed more than 100,000 absentee ballots during its March primary.

Reasons vary, from ballots being received after the deadline to voters' signatures not matching the one on file with the county clerk. Multiple studies show mail-in ballots from Black voters, like those from Latino and young voters, are rejected at a higher rate than those of white voters.

In Wisconsin's April primary, thousands of voters in Milwaukee said they didn't receive absentee ballots in time and had to vote in person. Lines stretched several blocks, and people waited two hours or more.

In Kentucky's June primary, more than 8,000 absentee ballots were rejected in Jefferson County, which includes Louisville.

Many people in Louisville's historically Black West End neighborhood voted in person because they didn't receive an absentee ballot or simply wanted to vote in a way that was familiar to them, said Arii Lynton-Smith, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Louisville.

"That's particularly why we knew we had to have the poll rides as an option," she said, referring to groups offering voters free transportation to polling places. "It's not as easy to do an absentee ballot and the things that come along with it than it is to just go in person."

Mistrust by Black voters runs deep and is tightly bound within the nation's dark past of slavery and institutional racism.

Black people endured poll taxes, tossed ballots, even lynchings by whites intent on keeping them from voting. Over the decades, that led to a deep suspicion of simply handing off a ballot to the post office. Black people were the demographic least likely to cast votes by mail in 2018, with only 11% using that method, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By comparison, 24% of whites and 27% of Latinos reported voting by mail that year.

"For Black folks, voting is almost like a social pride because of the way they were denied in the past," said Ben Barber, a researcher and writer for the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, North Carolina.

Trump has made clear he believes widespread mail-in voting would benefit Democrats. He has alleged — without citing evidence — that it will lead to massive fraud, and the Republican National Committee budgeted $20 million to fight Democratic lawsuits in at least 18 states aimed at expanding voting by mail.

The extent to which Black voters adopt it in November is likely to be dictated by the coronavirus. As infections surge, there are signs more Black voters may be willing to consider the option. In Detroit, for example, about 90,000 requests for mail-in ballots have been made so far — the most ever, City Clerk Janice Winfrey said.