Experts say the stressors and interruptions caused by the COVID pandemic likely were behind much of the change in Omaha and Nebraska crime numbers in 2020.
One day they will look back and be glad they had this season, thankful they had this one last time together.
But now was not that time.
In a season where you never knew what to prepare for, the last thing you prepare for is the ending.
But it came swiftly and sharply for Nebraska’s volleyball team on a Monday afternoon in downtown Omaha.
The fifth-seeded Huskers lost to No. 4 Texas, 25-22, 19-25, 25-15 and 25-21 in an NCAA regional final at the CHI Health Center.
Now a Final Four in Omaha will go on without Nebraska, for the first time. That one hurts.
But in this strangest of years, Nebraska can say it made it to Omaha — since the entire NCAA tournament was played here.
The Huskers even got to play in front of their fans — albeit 4,154 fans, most in red cheering them on. This time it wasn’t enough for a great Nebraska team.
A better Texas team got it done. And coach John Cook’s memorable team was left to assess the emotions in the quietest of locker rooms, where there was nothing to say.
But junior setter Nicklin Hames said it so well.
“Sad,” Hames said. “We’re upset. It’s Omaha, which is kind of a bummer because it would have been so much fun to play in front of all the fans for a national championship.
“Super grateful for this team. Everything we did this year was hard, with COVID, starting and stopping, never knowing what it was going to look like.
“I got to be teammates with these girls. I’m really proud of this team this year.”
The memories will be bittersweet, because Nebraska left with unfinished business — in a year where business was anything but usual.
Their last Final Four came in 2018, when NU lost a tough national title match to Stanford in Minneapolis. The next year, they lost to Wisconsin in the regional final.
So 2020 was the year that Lexi Sun and Lauren Stivrins and Co. would get it done. But then you know what happened.
The 2020 season became the 2021 winter/spring season. And then the Big Ten cut back on the potential by eliminating nonconference games.
As good as the Big Ten is, Nebraska typically likes to load up against schools like Stanford and Texas — to prepare for moments like Monday. Cook pointed out the impact that had.
But it was still a season, a season they all came back for.
The hardest season of their lives.
The daily testing. The uncertainty each week of playing. Having their biggest match, Wisconsin, canceled due to COVID. Later, same thing with Penn State.
They would go three weeks between competing before the NCAA tournament. And by that time, Stivrins, their smiling, energetic rock in the middle, had a mysterious injury.
She missed the first two games of this tournament. And then suddenly, in the big arena with fans back and tall Texas on the other side, Stivrins was back.
She wasn’t completely healthy. But she had to play. No way she could miss this one.
To the end, her presence was inspiring. So was the crowd. NU won the second set to tie the match. Then jumped ahead 4-1 in the third.
But Texas pulled together. Led by the terrific Logan Eggleston, UT had too much power, height and skill. NU hung in there, but you could feel it. The Longhorns had control of the match.
In the end, they looked exhausted. Emotionally spent. It was written all over Cook’s face.
“It’s been a weird season,” Cook said. “There wasn’t much emotion (after). I told them I’m proud of how they handled it. They handled it a lot better than I have.”
Cook revealed that the Texas match was in some question, as four NU players had positive antigen tests before the match. But they were eventually cleared.
“What do you think that does when you’re sitting in a room alone for an hour?” Cook said.
“Just stuff like that. It’s mind games and they’ve done a really good job of handling it.
“I’ve seen stuff this year that I’ve never seen before, with injuries and emotional stuff. I hope we can have a normal fall season.”
The great Nebraska coach has seen it all and he will never forget this team or this season. But you wonder if the introspective Cook will allow himself a what-might-have-been.
Could this team have gone farther in a normal 2020 fall season, with a normal nonconference schedule and league season? We’ll never know. Nobody got that chance.
They played the hand they were dealt and played it extremely well.
And then they found out the downside to the reward of having a season, the one thing this wacky spring hybrid had in common with the others.
Heartbreaks hurt just as bad.
Take a look at the Nebraska Crime Commission’s domestic abuse report from 2019, collected from law enforcement agencies across the state, and a few things stand out.
Rural Cheyenne County, located in the Nebraska Panhandle, is listed as having more aggravated domestic assaults that year than Douglas County, which has about 64 times Cheyenne County’s population.
That’s because the Omaha Police Department, the largest law enforcement agency in the state, did not submit any reports that year. Nor did the department in the previous five years.
Sixteen other law enforcement agencies also failed to fully report domestic violence statistics from 2014 through 2019, something that is required by state law.
But all of those agencies serve populations of 5,000 or less. The Omaha Police Department serves about 450,000 people.
According to Don Arp Jr., executive director of the crime commission, the Omaha Police Department hasn’t been compliant since 2003.
According to a World-Herald analysis, a total of 73 law enforcement agencies in 58 counties across the state failed to report aggravated or simple domestic assaults or arrests in at least one year from 2014 to 2019 — the data sets that are publicly available on the commission’s website.
In essence, those law enforcement agencies were breaking a state law passed in 1997 that requires Nebraska agencies to submit monthly domestic abuse reports to the commission.
Representatives of some agencies said they didn’t know they weren’t submitting domestic violence reports. Others said they lacked the technology required to do so or they’re grappling with a difficult switch from one crime-reporting system to another.
Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer found out about the lack of reporting to the commission after Arp notified the department — after being contacted by a reporter. Schmaderer said he ordered an audit of the statistics unit “in an abundance of caution,” but department officials have no indication of other gaps in reporting.
Experts say the stressors and interruptions caused by the COVID pandemic likely were behind much of the change in Omaha and Nebraska crime numbers in 2020.
“It should have been reported ... and it’s embarrassing. I find that to be embarrassing,” Schmaderer said when asked about the lack of reports. “It’s gonna get corrected for sure.”
The crime commission collects various crime data from Nebraska law enforcement agencies, including traffic stop and use-of-force statistics. It also distributes federal grant funds, oversees the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center and considers revocations for officer certifications.
Arp said the commission collects the domestic violence data because of a state requirement and doesn’t use the data to apply for federal grants, although outside organizations could use the information for that purpose.
Melody Vaccaro, the executive director of the nonprofit Nebraskans Against Gun Violence, initially found the discrepancy when her organization sought last year to compile statewide statistics involving firearms.
Vaccaro said that the lack of reporting renders the data sets unusable and that law enforcement agencies should understand they’re breaking the law when they don’t file reports.
“You can’t make any sort of assumptions, any sort of judgments about Nebraska data because the data is junk,” she said. “It is unambiguous, what their duty is to do. I think what it says to me, it resonates with these broader calls for police accountability.”
Arp said the commission could fine agencies $100 for every day after a 30-day grace period following three consecutive months of not submitting reports.
For the Omaha Police Department, that fine could have amounted to at least $645,000.
But the statute says the agency must be shown to “willfully” not submit reports and the Nebraska attorney general would file a civil suit to assess the fine, Arp said.
Arp, who has been the commission’s executive director since February 2019, said he has not fined an agency and didn’t think his predecessor had, either.
Schmaderer said his department collects a lot of data and must file reports to the FBI and other organizations such as the state crime commission or to stay current on accreditation.
The Omaha Police Department has the domestic assault data and plans to submit it to the state commission from prior years to correct the record. But Arp said the commission can’t log data from prior years. “We can only go forward,” he said.
Schmaderer acknowledged that without numbers from the largest city in Nebraska, the commission’s data set would be incomplete.
“As crime rises and falls here, the state’s crime will rise and fall,” he said. “That’s how much weight we put on it.”
Schmaderer is listed as a member of the crime commission committee, along with Gov. Pete Ricketts; Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson; Col. John Bolduc, head of the Nebraska State Patrol; Scott Frakes, director at the Nebraska Department of Corrections; and others.
But Schmaderer said his department was never notified about not being in compliance on domestic violence data, something representatives from smaller agencies echoed.
Nance County Sheriff Ben Bakewell, who was elected in 2018 and oversees a population of about 3,500, said he didn’t remember getting a reminder about the requirement to report domestic violence incidents. Nance County was one of the 17 agencies that did not file any domestic violence reports in the 2014-19 time frame.
Bakewell estimated the county averages one such assault every one to two months.
“We’ll start reporting,” he said. “I really did not know that we were supposed to.”
Arp said he was surprised that Omaha police and others weren’t aware of not being in compliance.
“I always thought they had known. I always assumed they knew they weren’t reporting it,” Arp said.
Arp estimated about less than 10% of the more than 200 law enforcement agencies across the state have trouble reporting required statistics to the commission. He said those are small agencies that have few employees and resources.
The crime commission’s statistics aren’t immune from mistakes, either.
The Randolph Police Department is listed in the commission’s 2017-19 data sets as being a town in Chase County. Randolph is in Cedar County.
Another issue that leads to noncompliance is that law enforcement agencies across the country are switching from the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system to the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), the latter of which is more specific. That transition was to occur by Jan. 1, the FBI has said.
The Grand Island Police Department was the only agency in Hall County to fail to report — the department did not share its numbers of domestic violence arrests from 2014 through 2016, but it did report the number of incidents during that period.
Grand Island Police Chief Robert Falldorf said that was because the agency still was using the UCR system in those years, but transitioned to NIBRS on Jan. 1, 2017. The domestic assault arrests were counted in those years, he said, but were included in general assault tallies and not separated out as domestic violence arrests.
Boyd County Sheriff Chuck Wrede, whose northeast Nebraska county has a population of nearly 2,000, maintained that his office has been reporting the statistics despite crime commission records showing the commission hasn’t received Boyd County domestic violence reports for six years.
Over the years, Wrede said, he has submitted the information via mail, email and fax. He said it’s difficult for a small agency to adapt to changing technology and reporting requirements.
“Every time you turn around, the State of Nebraska changes stuff,” he said. “As far as I know, we’ve reported everything that they want.”
Arp said he didn’t immediately know about Boyd County’s situation, and guessed its reporting issues arose because the commission wants the statistics to be submitted via an electronic system, not on paper or via email.
Last year, Deputy Police Chief Scott Gray tackled a gunman at Hy-Vee. Last week, he responded to the shooting of Officer Wittstruck, which he called "a stark reminder for all the officers out there."
In the Panhandle, the Sioux County Sheriff’s Office is another small agency that the commission says failed to report domestic violence numbers. Sheriff Chad McCumbers, whose county has a little over 1,000 residents, said the problem was more complicated.
“It’s not our fault, it’s not really their fault ... (the numbers) don’t get separated properly. All the agencies that use our dispatch system, it all goes together,” he said.
McCumbers said he’s working to find a solution, but system upgrades require a significant amount of money that the county doesn’t have.
Arp acknowledges the technological issues, but said the commission offers a way for smaller departments that don’t have a reporting system to file information about incidents as they occur. He said he didn’t want to fine agencies that were working on the UCR-to-NIBRS transition.
“Our tactic has always been to work with them,” Arp said. “No one’s defiantly not sending in data. Everybody wants to, it’s just there’s some technical snags.”
Arp has a goal of 100% reporting from the state’s law enforcement agencies, which he said he thinks could happen within the next couple of years. But he agreed that the commission’s data set is limited.
“Absolutely, it would be a lot of data that’s not there,” he said.
In Douglas County, the Sheriff’s Office and the Bennington and Metropolitan Community College Police Departments also failed to report at least one year of domestic violence stats from 2014 through 2019. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office partially reported numbers in 2015, 2016 and 2018 and did not report in 2017.
Douglas County Chief Deputy Wayne Hudson said the discrepancy was also an issue of changing from UCR to NIBRS reporting.
The Women’s Fund of Omaha, which advocates for policy changes, research and solutions for girls and women, compiled a report in March 2019 called “State of Domestic Violence in Douglas County.”
For that report, local agencies provided researchers with data from 2015 to 2017, said Christon MacTaggart, the Freedom from Violence project director.
It’s important that agencies report domestic violence statistics in a timely fashion, she said, but law enforcement numbers are not the only way to measure the prevalence of domestic violence in a community. MacTaggart said according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than 50% of partner violence cases are reported to law enforcement nationwide.
“(I)t’s important to understand that involving law enforcement might not be every survivors’ path to safety,” MacTaggart said in an email. “So the numbers will never tell the full story of intimate partner violence. We have to (have a) multiagency approach to domestic violence so that when victims engage with the criminal justice system, they are surrounded by agencies and supported.”
Schmaderer’s audit of the Omaha Police Department was ordered two weeks ago, and officials are making progress and are in communication with the commission, said Lt. Neal Bonacci, a department spokesman.
“We are trying to figure out where the disconnect was and make sure it doesn’t happen anymore,” he said. “We’re aware of it now and we’re taking steps to correct the issue.”
More than half of adult Nebraskans now have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, marking a significant milestone in the fight against COVID-19.
Almost 774,000 Nebraskans had gotten at least one shot as of Sunday, according to a World-Herald analysis of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. That works out to 53% of the state’s 18-and-older population and puts the state at 18th best in that category, up two spots from last week.
In addition, more than half a million Nebraskans — some 531,000 — now are fully vaccinated. That figure, a little more than 36% of the state’s adults, put Nebraska at No. 14 among states.
In the bigger picture, Nebraska’s rollout is on par with or slightly ahead of the nation at large, with half of all American adults also having received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, according to the CDC.
Federal officials also announced Monday that anyone 16 and older now is eligible for the vaccine.
Nationally, more than 129 million people ages 18 and older have received at least one shot, or 50.4% of the total adult population, according to the CDC. More than 83 million adults, or 32.5% of the total adult population, are fully vaccinated with one of the three vaccines approved in the U.S.
In Nebraska, there still are quite a few people who want to get vaccinated and who are attending mass vaccination clinics, particularly in populous Douglas and Lancaster Counties, said Susan Bockrath, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Local Health Directors. That includes many younger people, those 16 and older, who only recently became eligible for the shots.
But some slots are getting harder to fill, she said, and local health departments are changing how they reach people.
With Nebraskans lining up for the COVID vaccine, chatter around who had what side effects from the shots — a fever or sore arm vs. none at all — have become commonplace.
“We’ve vaccinated most of the easy-to-find folks,” she said. “Yes, there is a shift in tactics in trying to convince the people who maybe haven’t made the decision to vaccinate yet that it’s the right thing to do.”
The Douglas County Health Department began offering walk-in shots at some clinics last week and announced Monday that it was expanding walk-in opportunities throughout the county. Both the drive-thru clinic at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha Campus and the Heartland Family Service Generations Center at 4318 Fort St. were accepting walk-ins Monday.
Health officials continue to reach out to Nebraskans. State and local health officials have held virtual town halls and other events to provide information and opportunities to ask questions.
More clinics in the future may be attached to schools, as recently occurred in Grand Island.
Another option may be to reach out to chambers of commerce to host Zoom meetings to help local businesses understand talking points that can convince reluctant workers, she said. Some health departments still are offering vaccination clinics at manufacturing facilities.
But Bockrath said the time also has come where health officials need everyone to talk up the vaccines to anyone who will listen. Health officials need those who are nervous or unsure to turn to health departments, the CDC’s website and other reliable sources to get questions answered.
One ongoing frustration is how politicized vaccination still is in some communities, she said. But a positive sign is that health officials are seeing some who initially said they were not going to get vaccinated make a different decision.
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“We appreciate that people can hear new information and change their minds,” Bockrath said. “The door is always open for someone who said they didn’t want to be vaccinated and (who) turns around and changes their mind.”
Indeed, 73% of Nebraskans 65 and older now are fully vaccinated, putting Nebraska at No. 11 in that category. But the total continues to creep up, suggesting that some older Nebraskans who were reluctant to get the vaccines initially have since gotten them. The number of fully vaccinated Nebraskans 65 and older was just under 70% the week before.
Nebraska health officials don’t appear to face as hard a sell as those in some states.
The state fell in the middle of the pack in an April 6 study by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department that estimated hesitancy by state, county and smaller areas with at least 100,000 people. Federal officials estimated that 17% of Nebraskans were hesitant to get a vaccine in early to mid-March, with 9% strongly hesitant. All Nebraska counties were estimated at either 17% or 18% hesitant.
Iowa was in the top third in hesitancy with 20% estimated hesitant and 10% strongly hesitant. The highest was Wyoming with 31% estimated hesitant, and the lowest were Massachusetts and Vermont with 7%.
In the more detailed breakdown, federal officials divided Douglas County into quadrants. Hesitancy was estimated at 21% in the northeast, 19% in the southeast and 15% in the northwest and southwest.
“We absolutely believe in these vaccines and what they can do to help us have safe summers that are full of (good times) with the people we want to see,” Bockrath said.
A variant of COVID-19 first identified in South Africa has been found in a Lancaster County resident, Nebraska health officials said Friday.
One challenge is that the vaccines currently come in packaging with multiple doses that’s not conducive to small clinics or sending out vaccinators to drive long distances between administering two or three doses. But Bockrath said she can’t imagine that won’t change at some point. No one wants to waste vaccine.
“There’s a lot more to do, but you can’t understand what a relief it is to know a half-million Nebraskans (have been) vaccinated,” she said.
And some more good news:
While Nebraska’s cases had been ticking upward for the past couple of weeks, the state recorded 2,090 new cases for the week that ended Saturday, down almost 13% from 2,395 the previous week.
Last week’s case count was only modestly higher than it has been over the past two months, indicating the state may be avoiding the kind of large third surge affecting some other states.
Nebraska’s per capita cases for the week, in fact, ranked well below the national average and was 28th among the states. Iowa came in even lower at No. 32. Cases in Michigan last week, on the other hand, were running five times higher than in Nebraska.
World-Herald Staff Writer Henry J. Cordes contributed to this report.