As Omaha police conduct an internal investigation into brutality allegations in the arrests of three men, the public may be wondering how often police officers are disciplined for their conduct.
The answer might surprise you.
Omaha officers violated department policy in about 29 percent of the allegations leveled against them during 2012, according to Police Department statistics.
In the previous five years, the department's internal affairs unit found violations by officers facing complaints from a low of 21 percent in 2011 to a high of nearly 40 percent in 2010.
In the same period, the number of formal citizen complaints against officers nearly doubled. In 2007, citizens filed 56 formal complaints; in 2012, that number was 111.
Sgt. John Wells, president of the Omaha police union and a 15-year member of the force, said it's a misconception to believe that Omaha officers are not subject to discipline.
“The notion that police officers can get away with whatever they want is a farce,” Wells said. “Believe me, I can tell you from personal knowledge that investigations occur, discipline is handed out, and officers are held accountable.”
Police administrators declined to comment for this article, so there's no way to know specific allegations in each case. They could range from the type of excessive force allegations being investigated now to making an improper traffic stop to being rude.
If found to have violated policy, an officer is subject to reprimand, suspension, demotion or termination.
The March 21 incident in north Omaha, recorded on video, began as a dispute over the towing of vehicles and ended with allegations that police used excessive force in apprehending one of the men. The incident also has raised questions about when officers, absent a court order, have authority to enter a private residence.
Police Chief Todd Schmaderer is asking the public for patience while waiting for the investigation to be completed.
Schmaderer has not named the officers at the center of the investigation, but The World-Herald has learned the names of three: Dyea L. Rowland and Matthew C. Worm, who have been temporarily reassigned, and Bradley D. Canterbury, who is on paid administrative leave. Police said Saturday that a fourth officer has also been placed on paid leave.
The 203 total complaints lodged against Omaha police officers last year contained 582 allegations of misconduct. Of those allegations, officers were found to have violated department policy 169 times.
Why the difference between total complaints and allegations? A single complaint often includes multiple allegations against multiple officers.
And of the total complaints filed last year, 111 were formal citizen complaints. That means that they were made in writing and that the citizen agreed to be interviewed by the internal affairs unit. Forty-five other complaints filed by citizens were not pursued by them, and 47 complaints were generated from within the Police Department.
Lt. Darci Tierney, a police spokeswoman, said the department doesn't usually act on a complaint unless the citizen puts it in writing and agrees to an interview. But the police chief can order an internal investigation at any time, she said.
Roy Bedard, a national law enforcement consultant based in Florida, said 111 formal citizen complaints appeared to be a typical number for a city the size of Omaha and a department with about 800 sworn officers.
“I certainly don't think it sounds grossly excessive,” Bedard said. “But you need to look at the number of complaints made and the number that were actually founded.”
Wells, the Omaha police union president, said the number of formal complaints over the course of a year is low.
“To me, the relatively low number of complaints means the vast majority of police contacts are not controversial, because we're literally making tens of thousands of contacts a year, and there is only that number of complaints,” Wells said. “We'd like it to be zero, but that's not possible given the nature of policing. Someone's always going to be upset.”
Formal citizen complaints began climbing about the time that then-Mayor Mike Fahey fired the city's police auditor, Tristan Bonn, but it's unclear whether her 2006 termination played any role in the increase. Bonn, hired in 2001, began working directly for the Mayor's Office after the City Council eliminated funding for her position. The city currently has no police auditor.
One explanation for rising citizen complaints may be that north Omaha leaders such as City Councilman Ben Gray have been encouraging citizens to file them.
“Citizens are becoming more aware,” Gray said. “The reason for filing a complaint is that if certain officers' names come up over and over again, we have ammunition to remove them.''
World-Herald staff writer Maggie O'Brien contributed to this report.
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