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James Michael Bowers

Councilman James Michael Bowers votes in June during a council meeting at City Hall. 

Good Samaritans could have legal cover to break car windows to save children or animals from hot vehicles under a new proposal before the Lincoln City Council.

Councilman James Michael Bowers, a school social worker, has offered the new ordinance, which protects people who free children or animals from prosecution.

A total of 47 children in the U.S. have died this year after being left in hot cars, including a 1-year-old boy in Columbus Aug. 7, according to NoHeatStroke.org.

No child car deaths have been recorded in Lincoln in recent years, Lincoln Police Department spokeswoman Officer Angela Sands said.

No pets have died of heat exposure from being left in a vehicle this year, but Lincoln recorded one dog death last year, Animal Control Manager Steve Beal said.

Bowers' ordinance, which will be up for public hearing Monday, seeks to address a perception problem and matches laws already on the books in 15 other states, he said.

"Most people already think this is a law in Lincoln," the first-term Democrat said in an interview.

His ordinance removes the gray area and "allows people to act with confidence if they follow specific steps," Bowers said.

Bowers' proposal establishes defense from vandalism charges if the person has a reasonable belief a minor or animal is in danger and first makes a reasonable attempt to find the owner, calls 911 to notify authorities, doesn't interfere with police commands, confirms the vehicle is locked and stays with the child or animal until police, firefighters or animal control officers arrive.

Lincoln City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick said his office has not filed charges in a case where someone busted a car window to save someone.

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Already, people concerned about the safety of a child or animal in a locked car are asked to call police first, Sands said.

Those calls receive the highest response priority for officers in Lincoln, so the department doesn't encourage people to take matters into their own hands, she said. 

"We discourage it because — anywhere within the city — we can get there within seconds or if not minutes," Officer Angela Sands said.

Officers are trained on how to safely break car windows open to avoid injuring themselves or the people inside and they're equipped with batons and other tools, she said.

Bowers' ordinance requires that people complying with the law use no more force than necessary.

Animal Control officers have never had to break a window to get into a vehicle and free an endangered pet, Beal said.

They have responded to an average of 234 dog in car calls annually in the recent years.

Most of the time, officers find the owners involved and get the pet out safety, he said.

"We don’t want any animal, or certainly any child or human, to die of exposure." Beal said. "... Anything that can be done to help minimize that I think is certainly a good thing.”

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

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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