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Lincoln mayor accepts grant for 5 new police officers despite opposition from Black Lives Matter
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Lincoln mayor accepts grant for 5 new police officers despite opposition from Black Lives Matter

From the What you missed this week in notable Southeast Nebraska crimes and court cases series
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Protest, 6.1

Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird (right) addresses protesters who sat in the intersection of South 10th Street and Lincoln Mall in front of the County-City Building on June 1.

Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird has accepted a federal grant to fund five additional police officers following careful consideration amid calls from local Black Lives Matter supporters to reject the money.

At a news conference Thursday, the first-term mayor said she rejects the notion that city leaders need to choose between supporting law enforcement and supporting calls for equitable treatment for everyone by law enforcement.

These new officers will help reduce gun violence and help improve the safety and security of Lincoln, she said.

"Adding more police officers is not an end," the mayor said. "It is a means to achieve that goal."

As she announced her decision, she also said her administration has found $150,000 in the upcoming budget to pay for crisis support, social services and make more mental health resources available in the city.

The federal grant emerged as a point of contention in Lincoln last month as news dropped that the city would likely receive it while some people with the Black Lives Matter movement called on city leaders to defund the police  following the decision by the city of Minneapolis to do so in the wake of George Floyd's death.

LPD applied for the $625,000 grant in March, seeking to add officers during times of constrained city budgets, while trying to address a rising trend of gun violence in the city, according to its grant application.

Gaylor Baird's budget already includes plans to repurpose the salary of the now-vacant public safety director position to pay for six new officers, as the police union-endorsed mayor campaigned on last year.

Paid out between 2021 and 2025, the grant would be combined with $208,000 in city funds to hire the officers.

Amid calls to 'defund the police,' LPD assessing grant to add officers

With the grant, the city would hire new recruits in January and dedicate veteran officers to gun crime investigations after the recruits completed police academy and field training requirements, Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister said.

Officers will do expanded work like review handgun purchase permits to keep guns away from people barred from possessing, preventing illegal gun sales, ramping up ballistic investigations to solve crimes, boosting threat assessment and collaborating with businesses and other community groups to increase gun safety education, the chief said.

Reached Thursday for comment, Lincoln Police Union President Brad Hulse said hiring officers remains a pressing issue in the city, which is one of the smallest departments in the U.S. per capita.

Just in the last month or so, a handful of officers have left the department because of retirement or new law enforcement jobs, or quit policing altogether, Hulse said.

The union applauds the mayor for accepting the grant, the officer said. 

"It’s not a popular decision," he said, "I think it is by the majority of the (Lincoln) public, but nationally it’s not a popular thing to do." 

Asked why she didn't accept the grant sooner, Gaylor Baird said city needs are pretty clear, but the priorities of residents aren't always as clear, so she wanted time to listen to what people in the community were asking for. 

Those conversations revealed to her the need for more support for mental health resources, she said. 

The $150,000 going toward more crisis support comes from money that had not been pledged in the proposed city budget, according to the mayor.

City officials say this effort builds off an existing, nationally recognized partnership between the Lincoln Police Department and the Mental Health Association of Nebraska to connect people who need help and support with a peer specialist at the association after being referred by law enforcement.

Feds grant Lincoln money to hire more officers, but whether mayor will accept remains unclear

Exactly what programs it will fund remains undetermined, but Gaylor Baird said she'll convene an expert panel to recommend uses for the money. 

A bipartisan majority of the City Council joined the mayor Thursday to applaud the grant decision and expanded support for crisis resources. 

City Councilwoman Sändra Washington said she hopes the city will explore ways to provide additional connection points to service agencies for those calling 911, recognizing several local agencies operate 24/7 crisis help lines, too. 

"Black lives matter," Councilwoman Jane Raybould said. "It has been a challenging time. It has been a very long journey for so many, especially our neighbors of color. The good news is we hear you, and together we are on the right path."

Residents can comment on the proposed budget at a hearing Aug. 3 before the Lincoln City Council. The budget will be adopted later in August.

Photos, videos: Protests in Lincoln

Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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