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Briar Cliff's Jalen Bowman is taken down by Morningside's Isaac Pingel, left, Niklas Gustav, and Laken Harnly, right, during Morningside College vs Briar Cliff University football action, at Elwood Olsen Stadium in Oct. 2020. 

Congress diving into policing laws

WASHINGTON — Bolstered with new momentum, Congress is ready to try again to change the nation's policing laws, heeding President Joe Biden's admonition that the guilty verdict in George Floyd's death is "not enough" for a nation confronting a legacy of police violence.

Legislation that was once stalled on Capitol Hill is now closer than ever to consensus, lawmakers of both parties said Wednesday, a day after a Minneapolis jury found former officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter in Floyd's death. Behind the scenes, negotiations are narrowing on a compromise for a sweeping overhaul, though passage remains uncertain.

Tuesday's verdict launches "a new phase of a long struggle to bring justice to America," declared Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., in urging passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. "This is the human rights issue in the United States of America."

Meanwhile, the Justice Department is opening a sweeping investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis after Chauvin was convicted there, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Wednesday.

The Justice Department was already investigating whether Chauvin and the other officers involved in Floyd's death violated his civil rights.

"Yesterday’s verdict in the state criminal trial does not address potentially systemic policing issues in Minneapolis," Garland said.

The new investigation is known as a “pattern or practice" — examining whether there is a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing — and will be a more sweeping review of the entire police department. It may result in major changes to policing in the Minnesota city.

It will examine the use of force by police officers, including force used during protests, and whether the department engages in discriminatory practices. It will also look into the department’s handling of misconduct allegations and its treatment of people with behavioral health issues and will assess the department's current systems of accountability, Garland said.

The Minneapolis police said in a statement that the chief, Medaria Arradondo, "welcomes this investigation" and will fully cooperate with federal prosecutors.

The revived effort in Congress, led by Black lawmakers including Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, comes at a pivotal moment. The nation is on edge over the Floyd case, the deaths of other Black Americans — including a 16-year-old girl brandishing a knife about the time the Minneapolis verdict was announced — and almost a year of protests accusing police of brutal actions that often go unseen.

The guilty verdict for Chauvin was a rare occurrence, not least because in this case an officer's actions were recorded by a bystander and shown to the jury in court. That followed months of the video being played repeatedly on TV, imprinted in the minds of Americans everywhere.

With political pressure mounting on all sides, Biden is urging Congress to plunge back into policing legislation.

"We can't stop here," he said Tuesday after the verdict.

In private, Scott briefed key Republican senators on Wednesday, updating his colleagues on quiet negotiations that have been underway with Democrats for nearly two months. He told reporters he expected to wrap up those talks with the Democrats within two weeks.

"We've made tremendous progress," Scott said on Capitol Hill.

Democrats say they are ready.

"This has to come to a stop," said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest ranking Black elected official in Congress, after the Chauvin verdict.

He and others, including Scott, have told wrenching stories of their own experiences with law enforcement well into their adult lives as elected officials serving in the most powerful corridors of power.

Congress struggled with a police overhaul bill last summer in the immediate aftermath of Floyd's death, but the legislation went nowhere after Democrats and Republicans could not agree to a compromise package.

The House, led by Democrats, has now twice approved a sweeping overhaul, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, that would be the most substantial federally ordered changes to policing in a generation.

The bill would allow police officers to be sued and damages awarded for violating people's constitutional rights, limiting "qualified immunity" protections now in place for law enforcement.

The legislation would ban the use of chokeholds and would create a national databases of police misconduct in an effort to prevent "bad apple" officers from being hired by other departments.

A Republican bill from Scott does not go as far as the House-passed measure. It was blocked last year by Senate Democrats, a fact that Republicans are emphasizing.

The GOP's Justice Act would step up compliance by law enforcement in submitting use-of-force reports to a national database. It also would require compliance reports for no-knock warrants, like the kind officers used to enter the residence when Breonna Taylor was killed in Kentucky.

The Democratic and Republican bills do share some provisions, including a measure making lynching a federal hate crime.

Talks in recent weeks have centered on one of the main differences, the limits on the public's ability to sue law enforcement officers under "qualified immunity." One alternative being discussed would allow police departments, rather than individual officers, to be held liable.

"I think that is a logical step forward," said Scott, putting more of the burden on the department rather than the officer.

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Happy to be back
Track starter happy to start season after losing last spring to COVID

ONAWA, Iowa -- Last spring, Dale Pash spent many beautiful days inside his house, teaching remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic and thinking about how he should be spending that afternoon and evening at a track meet somewhere in Northwest Iowa.

"I just hated it. I really look forward to going to the different venues, and staying at home wasn't fun," said Pash, a middle and high school health and physical education teacher at West Monona Community School District who also serves as a starter at track meets across the region.

The pandemic wiped out spring sports last year, not only sidelining the athletes but also the referees and officials who gain enjoyment from overseeing the contests.

Rather than firing his starter's pistol at his usual 15 or more meets last year, Pash was at home, watching a spring full of perfect days for track meets go by.

"The crazy thing is, we had pretty good weather last spring," he said.

So despite an unseasonably cool April that has thus far caused the postponement or cancellation of several track meets, Pash is happy to be able to begin a 13th year as a track starter.

"Everybody is really excited to get back to work on our mechanics and work with student athletes," Pash said. "I'm just excited that the student athletes are able to get out and compete."

Ask any high school sports official, no matter the sport, why they do what they do, and they'll probably tell you it's because of the enjoyment they get from interacting with young athletes.

Pash is no different. While sports were shut down last spring, he didn't feel sorry for himself. Instead, he thought about all those athletes, especially the seniors, who wouldn't get the chance to chase their goals. He thought of the two seniors at West Monona who he would see at the school's weight room at 6 a.m. every day, getting stronger in their quest to break the school shot put record.

"Being an official, it's not all about officiating. I get to build relationships with with kids and coaches," said Pash, a former West Monona girls track coach who got into officiating when a longtime track starter who was retiring suggested he give it a try. Pash passed the test and has been doing it ever since.

"It's something that I really have a passion for," he said. "It's neat to be around the kids and watch them compete."

He's thankful to have the chance to do so once again. As he observed the adjustments made for COVID-19 during the fall and winter sports seasons, Pash figured spring sports would return. They did, with a few COVID-related tweaks that athletes, coaches and fans are used to by now.

"I don't foresee any problems with track meets this spring," he said.

It's his own performance that he's more concerned about. With a year off, he's got to get back in the swing of things, remembering how to oversee a meet.

"I'm going to be a little rusty," he said. "I've been studying and going through my head different situations."

He hasn't had much of a chance to knock the rust off yet. Weather has kept the season from firing out of the starting blocks.

Last week, Pash was supposed to be the starter for two junior high track meets. Both were postponed because of the weather. He spent a chilly, windy day at Kingsley for his first high school track meet of the season and had a cool weekend working at the Sioux City Relays.

Despite the long layoff and less-than-ideal weather conditions, his muscle memory kicked in and he felt comfortable. COVID-19 may have cost him a season, but it didn't take away the mechanics he's spent more than a decade honing.

"Once I got there and fired the first race, it all came back," he said.

Now, if those warm, sunny spring days would just come back, too.

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Woodbury County supervisors approve $61M budget that includes tax increase, pay increase

SIOUX CITY -- Woodbury County supervisors on Tuesday gave final approval to an over $61 million budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year that raises the tax level for both urban and rural property and gives county workers a pay raise.

The budget also will cut by about $570,000 the county's contribution to Siouxland District Health Department, which has been on the front lines of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and administering vaccine shots. 

The supervisors set the proposed budget with property tax rates at $7.52 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for city property and $9.99 per $1,000 for rural property. That's an increase of 36 cents for city property and 35 cents for rural property, compared to the current budget year that ends June 30.

The increase is partially due to a new CIP Loan and funding to cover higher than expected construction costs for the new Law Enforcement Center, county finance director Dennis Butler said. 

Based on the new budget, county taxes for a residential home in the city assessed at $100,000 would total $424.41, while county taxes for a $100,000 home in rural areas would total $563.52. 

For the FY2021 fiscal year, the tax levy was proposed at $7.10 for city property and $9.57 for rural, but the actual rate was $7.16 and $9.63, respectively, according to the county.

The supervisors held a required public hearing before voting 4-0 to finalize the plan. No one from the public spoke at the hearing.

The budget includes a 2.75 percent pay raise for non-union workers and elected officials. Elected officials include the supervisors, county attorney, sheriff, auditor and treasurer. 

Human Resources Department director Melissa Thomas said most county unionized employees are operating off negotiated contracts that give raises in the vicinity of 2.75 percent.

As they began their budget talks in January, the supervisors said they faced a “tough budget year” with the challenge of reducing a $3.4 million gap in funding.

Among those steps included transferring $300,000 from the county's share of casino gambling proceeds to a fund that would reduce property taxes, along with dropping the reserve level in two funds.

The largest dollar figure involved dropping the county allocation to Siouxland District Health Department by $570,000. The department will receive almost $2.22 million in funding from the county, Butler said.

Butler noted SDHD received $252,174 from the CARES Act and had $1.4 million in reserves, or around a 43 percent reserve. The reduction in county funds results in a 25 percent reserve, or $814,376, according to the board action item. 

At an earlier meeting, SDHD Director Kevin Grieme noted that the department is now helping distribute the long-awaited vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

"I don't want to hit a wall that means we can't do what we need to be doing," Grieme told the board at that earlier meeting.

At Tuesday's meeting, the board held a separate public hearing to levy the General Basic property tax rate which exceeds the statutory maximum. Butler said this is something that has occurred for the last few years.

The county general tax rate is $3.66 per $1,000 of taxable value. The maximum is $3.50.