SPECIAL REPORT: Transparency in the Lincoln Police Department
LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN) – In September, the Lincoln Police Department introduced a new initiative aimed at improving accountability and trust with the community by creating a “Transparency” page on its website.
LPD says the page provides provide a single location where citizens can find answers to some of today’s most common law enforcement-related questions, which the department hopes will help inform and correct inaccurate information, enhance public understanding of how LPD functions, and illustrate the practices it uses.
The Transparency page contains detailed narratives on 22 wide-ranging topics related to LPD.
Channel 8 Eyewitness News went one-on-one with Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister to discuss some of the most prevalent and poignant questions about police transparency.
Below is a summary of some of the topics covered in that interview.
Use of Force/Control Policy
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the nation-wide call for racial justice, Bliemeister says police use of force has taken center stage – especially when it comes to chokeholds.
Following protests and riots in May, Bliemeister joined other city officials in announcing a review of LPD’s policies.
While the use of chokeholds as a restraint has been banned in LPD for years, some called on the department to go further.
Late last month, a group of Black church leaders gathered outside the Hall of Justice to ask LPD to explicitly ban chokeholds.
“They have been banned,” Bliemeister said. “Now they’re explicitly banned. And the only time that a Lincoln Police officer can use a chokehold is if they are faced with a life or death situation.”
Racial Disparities In Crime
Racial disparities are obvious in LPD’s crime statistics.
Despite making up only 15% of Lincoln’s population, non-white people made up roughly 35% of LPD’s total citations. When it comes to felony citations, that number jumps to 42%.
Bliemeister acknowledges the disproportionalities and says they exist in nearly every facet of policing and society.
He says access to housing, healthcare, and education – among other things – all factor into why people commit crimes.
“All of these different things are so complex, but absolutely must be addressed by society,” he said. “And the Lincoln Police Department is a part of that.”
Bliemeister says fixing that problem starts with the hiring process and weeding out candidates who display racial biases.
LPD pays for candidates to take polygraph tests, an expensive extra step he says many departments don’t take.
Bliemeister says LPD has “constant supervision” during training, and that quality assurance measures will catch and remove any inappropriate behavior.
Racial and Gender Diversity
The Lincoln Police Department is made up of just under 500 employees.
Of the 348 who are officers, only 27 are not white.
Gender disparity is also present, with women making up only 18% of LPD’s total workforce and only 15% of its officers.
Bliemeister says LPD partners with local community centers and churches to find candidates.
The department has also had its hiring process examined by Doane University to make sure it’s inclusive to all candidates and doesn’t include any subtle biases.
A recent policy change has helped, too, as officers can now display their tattoos.
Led by Officer Erin Spilker, LPD created a series of videos highlighting different officers and the stories their tattoos tell – something Bliemeister had been reluctant to allow.
“That was incredibly impactful for me,” he said, “Because I read just this weekend how some individuals believe that their identity is being suppressed by not allowing certain physical features to come forward. So we’re removing that obstacle, hoping to diversify our workforce.”
Body Camera Video
One area where Bliemeister says the new transparency project won’t extend is into body camera video.
By early 2021, most LPD officers will have body cameras – but don’t expect to see any of the video.
Bliemeister says retrieving and editing body camera video is a time-consuming process. He says the video is only released when it can aid an investigation and if LPD determines it won’t interfere with someone’s right to due process.
Channel 8 Eyewitness News pushed Bliemeister about why he doesn’t allow the public to view the video and decide if there was any misconduct committed by officers, but he remained firm in his stance.
“If it is more prejudicial than probative, I’m not going to release that information,” he said.
If there are accusations of wrongdoing, Bliemeister says LPD has a number of policies in place to make sure appropriate steps are taken.
First, supervisors randomly pull video to review.
If there’s a complaint, four levels of management look at the video. From there, it goes to Internal Affairs and to Bliemeister himself.
However, at no point is the video viewed by civilians.
According to the Transparency hub, LPD received 409 complaints in 2019.
Of those, 35 were reviewed by Internal Affairs – which handles the most serious complaints – and 16 were initiated by Bliemeister himself.
Bliemeister says when you consider LPD officers have more than “a million” interactions with the public each year, the numbers are small – but still too high.
Recent examples of police misconduct include an officer who was suspended earlier this month after receiving a DUI and a citation for an alleged assault at a Lincoln bar.
In December 2018, an off-duty officer was cited for drunk driving after crashing his pickup into a pole near 45th and Pioneers.
And last June, Greg Cody, a former officer, was found guilty of repeatedly sexually assaulting a woman he had met through a 9-1-1 call.
Bliemeister says he asks himself every day how to weed out those bad officers.
More than half of the 409 complaints last year came internally.
Channel 8 Eyewitness News asked Bliemeister point-blank why the public should trust investigations brought on and conducted by other officers.
“When our staff knows about it, our staff is coming forward. Because they’re doing the right things for the right reasons when no one is looking,” he said. “That is the assurance I would provide.”
Body Armor Policy Review
Following the death of Investigator Mario Herrera in August, LPD announced a review of some of its policies, including its body armor policy.
Herrera, a plainclothes officer, was not wearing body armor when he was shot while helping serve an arrest warrant in north Lincoln.
Bliemeister initially declined to discuss where the review process stood, telling Channel 8 Eyewitness News it didn’t fall within the realm of police transparency.
When we asked him why he felt that way, this was his answer: “I’ll put it at this. We continue to reflect on, think about, the incidents that led up to and followed the murder of Mario Herrera by a 17-year-old with a stolen gun. And one of those particular areas of focus is: would a ballistic or body armor have saved his life? And the unknowns surrounding that – I can’t answer that question, there’s no one who can answer that question. And I’ll never deny the fact that, if he was wearing body armor, certainly, there was another opportunity, another layer, another mitigating factor. And that is certainly part of the internal review that is going on right now.”
Bliemeister said he does not have a particular timeline for when that review process might finish, or whether the results will be released publicly.