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Nebraska senior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins warms up before playing against Texas in the NCAA regional final match on Monday at CHI Health Center Omaha.

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Legislature advances police reform bill, looks for compromise on issues concerning rural senators
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State lawmakers on Wednesday gave first-round approval to a bill increasing annual training requirements for law enforcement officers and requiring agencies to adopt policies on use of force in order to earn accreditation.

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said he would continue to work with rural senators who raised concerns the bill (LB51) imposed training requirements smaller law enforcement agencies may find overly burdensome.

An amended version of the bill, the result of two days of hearings last summer in which more than 200 people testified, as well as an interim study last fall, advanced on a 39-0 vote one day after a jury in Minneapolis convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin of murder in the death of George Floyd.

As amended, the bill increases annual training requirements for Nebraska law enforcement officers from 20 hours to 28 hours in 2022 and 32 hours in subsequent years.

It also requires new officers to submit to a psychological evaluation, departments to adopt policies outlining an officer's duty to intervene if he or she witnesses another officer using excessive force and bans the use of chokeholds and carotid restraints except when deadly force is authorized.

A floor amendment brought by Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk reinstated language allowing provisional officers, who can carry a gun while working alongside a field training officer, to also wear a badge, which Flood said would reduce confusion during traffic stops or other interactions.

LB51 also creates a public database of law enforcement officers convicted of a crime or who resign as the result of an investigation into their conduct, which Lathrop said "stops bad cops from hopping from one job to the next."

Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, who earlier this week said he was concerned the bill prohibited small departments from hiring reserve officers — who help out with everything from courthouse security to helping park cars at the county fair — said he would not filibuster the bill as he and Lathrop worked out a compromise.

But Brewer, joined by other senators from largely rural districts, said he remained concerned that the increased training requirements could strain police departments and sheriff's offices in rural areas, many of which have only a handful of employees.

"Most of the departments are on skeleton crews because it's so hard to hire with what they pay in western Nebraska," he said.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte asked if it was possible to spread the training out over multiple years rather than require it all at once.

Lathrop pointed out the bill, which has the support of several law enforcement agencies, allows officers to complete the training online and at their own pace rather than forcing them to travel to the academy in Grand Island, as they are now required to do.

A bill introduced by Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart at the request of the Fraternal Order of Police appropriated $140,000 to purchase a new training program that standardizes the continuing education received by law enforcement in the state, Lathrop added.

Other senators said while they believe the bill would enact needed reforms, they didn't think it goes far enough to address the concerns expressed about policing in America.

"This bill is a definitely needed, it's a step in the right direction," said Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney. "It's not fully what the people want, but it's a step in the right direction."

McKinney, who represents North Omaha, said senators need to focus on the public when they discuss public safety, and said the discussion being had by lawmakers illustrated there was a lot of work to be done.

"A lot of your communities might not be over-policed, but mine is," he said. "North Omaha needs relief from oppression and racism and death at the hands of police in our state."

Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt, responding to an earlier assertion from Groene that law enforcement officers here were "getting painted with the same brush" as those in high-profile incidents in other states, reminded the Legislature that Nebraska is not immune to police violence.

Zachary Bear Heels, who suffered from schizophrenia, died after being tased by Omaha Police a dozen times in 2017. Three of the four officers involved were reinstated, Hunt said.

"Don't tell me what happened to George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or that sweet little girl in Columbus, Ohio, yesterday can't happen in Nebraska," Hunt said.

"Anything we can do to roll back the plague of violence that has come down on Black and brown people in this country, any step forward we can make from that is something all of us should be lining up to do."

Meet the state senators making laws in 2021

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New Early Head Start center will open in Lincoln with space for 72 infants and toddlers
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Lincoln will get a new full-day Early Head Start center this fall for 72 children from low-income homes, which will be housed in a renovated space at 26th and O streets.

The Community Action Partnership, which manages federal Head Start funds for Lancaster and Saunders counties, got a nearly $1.7 million annual grant to expand the number of children it serves in Lincoln to 459. The partnership will serve a total of 493 children, including 34 it now serves in Wahoo.

The new center, which will open this fall at 2615 O St., will have space for 16 infants as well as toddlers up to age 3.

Head Start is open to families with children up to 5 years old whose incomes are at or below 100% of poverty, which for a family of four is $26,500. The longtime federal program prioritizes children in foster care, with disabilities or whose families are homeless or receive public assistance, said Vi See, Community Action’s executive director.

Early childhood education was one of the four initiatives identified by Prosper Lincoln, a community effort begun six years ago to make the city a better place to live, and at a news conference Wednesday, Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird said the new center will help fill a need.

“Access to high-quality early childhood education forms a critical step on a child’s pathway to successful adulthood,” she said. “Ensuring this access for all children, regardless of their family’s level of income, is our community’s shared priority.”

Head Start offers both in-home and center-based care for children. In 2016, Community Action opened two full-day, early childhood centers in Lincoln and later added a third for children up to 5 years old. The new center -- for children up to age 3 -- will have nine classrooms and employ 30 people, including lead and associate teachers, teacher aides and other support positions.

Head Start is free for families, and in addition to providing quality early childhood education, it gives parents the ability to work or go to school, See said.

The grant pays for about 80% of the cost, and Community Action needs to raise about $61,000 to buy cribs, cubbies, tables, chairs, books and other educational materials to ready the nine rooms for children in the fall.

Speedway Properties, which owns the building at 26th and O streets, will remodel it with energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, LED lighting and various security features, said Clay Smith, the group’s general partner.

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Tax credits aim to spur shots
  • Updated

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced new employer tax credits and other steps to encourage people reluctant to be inoculated to get the COVID-19 vaccine as his administration tries to overcome diminishing demand for the shots. The moves came as Biden celebrated reaching his latest goal of administering 200 million coronavirus doses in his first 100 days in office.

More than 50% of adults are at least partially vaccinated and roughly 28 million vaccine doses are being delivered each week.

In a White House speech on Wednesday, Biden acknowledged entering a "new phase" in the federal vaccination effort that relies on increased outreach to Americans to get their shots, both to protect them and their communities.

"Vaccines can save your own life, but they can also save your grandmother's life, your co-worker's life, the grocery store clerk or the delivery person helping you and your neighbors get through the crisis," Biden said. "That's why you should get vaccinated."

Over the past week, the pace of inoculation in the U.S. has slowed slightly. That is partly a reflection of disruptions from the "pause" in administration of the Johnson & Johnson shot for a safety review, but also of softening interest for vaccines in many places even as eligibility has been opened to all those older than 16.

As the vaccination program progresses, the administration believes it will only get more difficult to sustain the current pace of about 3 million shots per day. Roughly 130 million Americans have yet to receive one dose.

Surveys have shown that vaccine hesitancy has declined since the rollout of the shots, but administration officials believe they have to make getting vaccinated easier and more appealing, particularly for younger Americans who are less at risk from the virus and do not feel the same urgency to get a shot. That means providing incentives and encouragement to get vaccinated, as well as reducing the friction surrounding the vaccination process.

Biden announced a tax credit for small businesses to provide paid leave for those getting vaccinated or potentially needing to take time off to recover from side effects. Paid for through the $1.9 trillion virus relief package passed last month, the tax change would provide a credit of up to $511 per day, per employee for businesses with fewer than 500 workers to ensure that those workers or businesses don't suffer a penalty by getting vaccinated.

The White House is urging larger employers, which have more resources, to provide the same benefits to their workers, and educate them about the shots and encourage them to get vaccinated.

"We're calling on every employer, large and small, in every state, give employees the time off they need with pay to get vaccinated," Biden said.

According to the White House, just 43% of working adults have received at least one shot.

As Biden celebrated the vaccine milestone, there is a different reality in the states.

In Iowa, nearly half of the counties are not accepting new doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from the state's allotment because demand has fallen off. In Florida, Palm Beach County plans to close mass vaccination clinics at the end of May with thousands of available vaccine slots unclaimed. In rural West Virginia, a vaccine clinic at a casino/race track parking garage is opening shots to out-of-state residents to address lagging demand. The hope is that people from Washington, D.C., make the hour's drive to get vaccinated. In Arizona, a plan collapsed that would have opened a federally run vaccine site in Tucson; demand is slipping and county officials preferred more targeted, mobile locations.

Asked about the dip in vaccinations, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said "fluctuation is not uncommon" and that "what we want to do is continue to encourage Americans to continue to get vaccinated."

"The pace of vaccination isn't linear," Becerra said, adding that "we are on a pretty good pace."

Meanwhile, the Baltimore factory hired to help make Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine was dirty, didn’t follow proper manufacturing procedures and had poorly trained staff, resulting in contamination of material going into a batch of shots, U.S. regulators said Wednesday.

The Food and Drug Administration released a statement and a 13-page report detailing findings from its just-completed inspection of the idled Emergent BioSciences factory.

Agency inspectors said a batch of bulk drug substance for J&J's single-shot vaccine was contaminated with material used to make COVID-19 vaccines for another Emergent client, AstraZeneca. The batch, reportedly enough to make about 15 million J&J vaccine doses, had to be thrown out.