- Associated Press - Monday, June 5, 2017

Omaha World-Herald. June 25, 2017

Nebraska State Patrol must address its credibility issues

How trustworthy would a Nebraska State Patrol investigator consider a civilian witness whose story shifted after three tellings?

Odds are, such a witness wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt. But the State Patrol expects the public to trust its shifting explanations for what led to a fatal crash that ended an Oct. 3 pursuit.

Six and a half minutes before the crash near Gordon, Nebraska, Trooper Tim Flick received approval to disable the fleeing suspect’s vehicle by using a tactical vehicle intervention. He then radioed dispatch to say he was carrying out the maneuver, which involves ramming the rear quarter panel of the vehicle being chased.

Flick radioed afterward to say he had carried out the TVI. He told someone the same thing by phone.

Then something changed. Capt. Jamey Balthazor, the troop area’s commander, wrote a memo saying Flick told him a different account hours later: that the fleeing vehicle had “moved into him.”

Dashboard camera footage appears to confirm Flick’s original version. In the footage, the Patrol cruiser appears to initiate contact with a Mercury driven by Antoine LaDeaux, 32, who died in the crash.

Authorities say LaDeaux was booze cruising with friends that night when he ran a stop sign and tried to outrun Flick, who pursued him.

Internal investigators and others who reviewed the incident later determined that Flick initiated the vehicle contact and that the trooper had used the TVI technique appropriately.

But some Patrol officials disagreed with that conclusion and argued internally about what the accident and internal reports should say.

A grand jury, after watching the cruiser video and hearing conflicting accounts from Flick and others, expressed confusion but blamed the wreck on LaDeaux, not the trooper.

It’s possible everything in this case was above board. It’s also possible the Patrol hoped to avoid the public scrutiny of a use-of-force investigation.

If Flick did follow Patrol policy, officials had nothing to fear. But if they were trying to avoid second-guessing the approval of the chase and the ramming of a suspect’s vehicle, that’s another issue entirely.

The internal struggle to reshape the narrative about what happened is troubling. Such conflicts chip away at public confidence in an agency.

Col. Bradley Rice, State Patrol superintendent, told The World-Herald’s Paul Hammel he has the “utmost confidence” in his investigators.

But Lt. Dennis Leonard, who led internal affairs during the Patrol’s investigation, sent a pointed email during the back-and-forth: “I never thought this likely but I must say that I no longer believe we are capable of objectively investigating our own.”

Leonard retired soon afterward with a sour taste in his mouth. “We’re supposed to be objective and tell the truth,” he said. “We’re not supposed to imagine or create a narrative and find facts that match.”

Gov. Pete Ricketts acted swiftly in ordering a top-to-bottom review of the State Patrol’s policies, operations and management, including whether the Patrol crash investigation was flawed.

“There were concerns raised about how that was handled internally,” Ricketts said Friday.

The Patrol engages in 80 or so high-speed chases a year. Five to 11 of them involve a TVI.

Law enforcement agencies, including the State Patrol and Omaha police, restrict how and when pursuits and interventions are allowed. But the state’s review also should examine whether a car with no plates running a stop sign warrants an 80-mph Patrol chase and a car-disabling intervention.

Two important principles are at stake: public safety and public trust.

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The Grand Island Independent. June 22, 2017

EAS funds really are essential

For many years now, the Essential Air Service program included in Federal Aviation Administration funding has made it possible for airports in small communities, including Grand Island, to continue to provide air service to rural areas.

At the Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island, EAS funding encouraged American Airlines to begin providing air service between Grand Island and the Dallas/Fort Worth airport in 2011 and passenger numbers on those flights have continued to increase over the years.

Earlier this year, the airport’s executive director, Mike Olson, said the airport has either the second or third lowest per-passenger subsidy in the country. Hall County Airport Authority attorney Ron Depue called the airport a “poster child” for the EAS program because boardings continue to increase and the per-passenger subsidy therefore keeps dropping.

Olson has said the airport’s ultimate goal is to get off the subsidy. But right now, it is the impetus for American Airlines to be flying American Eagle jets out of the Grand Island airport, so the passenger numbers show it is still very important to CNRA.

It’s even more important to the other Nebraska airports receiving subsidies, in Alliance, Chadron, McCook, North Platte, Kearney and Scottsbluff. Overall, EAS serves 173 airports in 46 states.

Yet, when the Trump administration released its fiscal year 2018 budget proposal earlier this year, it called for an end to EAS funding.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao this week emphasizing their concerns about the possibility of this program being cut.

“This would significantly reduce support for rural communities in our states,” the letter says. “A reduction in support could lead to a reduction in services and ultimately in jobs for rural America.”

When Fischer questioned Chao during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing earlier this month, the secretary assured our senator that she was working on a way to keep the subsidy program going. The senators’ letter urges her to follow through on this assurance and protect the EAS program.

The end of EAS could mean the end of air service in several rural Nebraska communities, as well as many other rural communities across the country.

The Trump budget proposal is far from being adopted. It’s up to Congress to hammer out funding for a myriad of government programs. But it’s good to see that Fischer is standing up for our state’s rural residents, who need to see continued air service in nearby communities.

Trump is emphasizing the need to rein in spending and look for efficiencies throughout the national budget, but rural air service is not the place for our government to make spending cuts.

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Lincoln Journal Star.  June 24, 2017

Nebraska must stay vigilant against opioid abuse

When it comes to the national opioid crisis, Nebraska has been lucky so far.

Whether it’s Nebraska’s location in the center of the country, a relatively strong economy with low unemployment or some other factor, the state had the second-lowest hospitalization rate for opioids, according to new federal data published Tuesday.

Those numbers reflect “a 64 percent increase for inpatient care and a 99 percent jump for emergency treatment” from 2005 to 2014 and nearly 1.3 million opioid-related hospitalizations in 2014, the Washington Post reports. But those figures only date to 2014 - meaning the epidemic has continued booming in the last two-and-a-half years and will continue to do so if unchecked.

Nebraska has taken several steps in the right direction to blunt the growing crisis, but the state must remain vigilant in combating this public health nightmare.

A variety of pharmacy chains now offer naloxone, which reverses opioid overdoses, without a prescription. Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson launched an awareness campaign in February. Effective last October, Medicaid capped the number of short-acting opiates that could be prescribed to Nebraska patients to 150 per month, or five per day.

But battling this scourge will require additional work in the coming years. Peterson said that Nebraska is at a challenge point, as the number of prescription overdose deaths increased from 2.4 to three people per 1,000 between 2005 and 2015. Fifty-four Nebraskans died of opioid overdoses in 2016 alone.

A Journal Star investigation into opioid abuse and death in Lincoln revealed that no age or walk of life precluded a person from chemical dependency. A number of robberies at pharmacies across the state, including a 2012 hostage situation in Alliance that ended with the suspect dead, are perpetrated by people committing crimes in hopes of obtaining opioids to feed an addiction.

Furthermore, Nebraska is one of only four states - joining Iowa, Wyoming and Texas - in bottom quarter for all gender and age subgroups for opioid-related inpatient stays, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. When factoring in emergency room visits, however, Nebraska senior citizens in 2014 visited acute care at a clip much closer to the national average: a rate of nearly 146 people per 100,000 in the 65-plus bracket.

To date, Nebraska has been fortunate to not see the same rates of abuse and death reported in Appalachia and the Mid-Atlantic. The state’s overdose deaths are disproportionately low, compared to the 33,039 Americans who died in 2015 of opioid abuse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite a low rate of hospitalization and death compared to other states, Nebraska must continue ramping up its efforts against the silent killer of opioid abuse.

___

McCook Daily Gazette. June 22, 2017

Be a good neighbor as you celebrate Independence Day

Americans traditionally celebrate their independence from England with Fourth of July fireworks, but we’ve also struggled with balancing that tradition with public safety and other considerations.

A Nebraska company thinks some Iowa cities have gone too far. Bellino Fireworks of Papillion is seeking an injunction barring Ankeny, Boone, Johnston and Pleasant Hill from enforcing fireworks rules more restrictive than state law, and another company has gone to court to stop Des Moines from enforcing its rule limiting fireworks sales to industrial areas.

The state of Iowa is more open to fiery celebration, passing a law last year that allows Iowans to buy, use and sell fireworks from June 1 through July 8 and from Dec. 10 through Jan. 3. Local governments can restrict the use of fireworks but not the sale.

Nebraska law only allows for fireworks to be sold between June 28 and July 5 or between December 28 and January 1. McCook allows their discharge 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. June 23-July 3 and until 11:59 a.m. July 4 and 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. July 5.

We’re sure city officials are hoping McCook residents are extra careful this year because of water restrictions recently imposed because of high water demand. That demand strains pumps and the water treatment plant and a major fire could quickly empty city water towers.

As always, there are some common-sense rules to follow with your home fireworks displays.

The National Safety Council and the National Council on Fireworks Safety offer a few firework safety tips:

(asterisk) Always have water, a hose or a bucket, and a first aid kit handy.

(asterisk) Keep young children away from fireworks, even sparklers.

(asterisk) Use fireworks the way they were intended. Follow the lighting instructions on the package and don’t combine them.

(asterisk) Never relight a “dud” firework. Wait 20 minutes and then soak it in a bucket of water.

(asterisk) Only use legal fireworks purchased locally and use fireworks outdoors only.

(asterisk) Use launching fireworks in open areas only to ensure they don’t land on top of buildings and houses.

(asterisk) Use a “designated shooter” who is alcohol-free and wearing safety glasses. Light one device at a time, and keep a safe distance once a firework is lit. Don’t light fireworks in containers.

(asterisk) Don’t allow running or horseplay by anyone near fireworks.

(asterisk) Don’t use fireworks while consuming alcoholic beverages.

(asterisk) Always clean up after you are done celebrating.

And be kind to your pets.

(asterisk) Always keep dogs and cats inside when fireworks are being let off.

(asterisk) Make sure your dog is walked earlier in the day before the fireworks start.

(asterisk) Close all windows and doors, and block off catflaps to stop pets escaping and to keep noise to a minimum. Draw the curtains, and if the animals are used to the sounds of TV or radio, switch them on (but not too loudly) in order to block out some of the noise of the fireworks.

(asterisk) Ensure dogs are wearing some form of easily readable identification (ID) - even in the house. They should have at least a collar and tag.

(asterisk) Think about fitting pets with a microchip, so that if they do run away they have a better chance of being quickly reunited with you.

(asterisk) Prepare a “den” for your pet where it can feel safe and comfortable - perhaps under a bed with some of your old clothes. They may like to hide there when the fireworks start.

Be kind to your pets, and be a good neighbor when it comes to fireworks, and make the Fourth a true celebration.

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