A summer of protests and repeated calls to rethink how Omaha spends its money ultimately wasn’t enough to sway the city’s elected officials to reimagine the police budget.
There wasn’t sufficient City Council support Tuesday to amend the city’s 2021 budget and reallocate $2 million from the Police Department to mental health and workforce programs. The department will receive its full $161.3 million next year, which will account for 36.7% of all day-to-day governmental city spending.
The council did agree on a 4-3 vote to take slightly less money — $1.85 million — from the city’s cash reserves for the programs.
Mayor Jean Stothert told local media that she plans to veto that measure, which was introduced by Councilman Pete Festersen, saying the city shouldn’t be withdrawing from its cash reserves during the pandemic. The city has about $14 million in its rainy day account.
“We should be putting more money into the cash reserve,” Stothert said.
Councilmen Ben Gray and Vinny Palermo joined Festersen and Council President Chris Jerram in voting for Festersen’s proposal. A fifth vote would be needed at next week’s meeting to override Stothert’s veto.
After listening to hours of public testimony and the voices of protesters, Festersen said it’s clear that the city should be doing more to address poverty, racial disparities and mental health, especially in North and South Omaha.
“I think the proposed budget is status quo and is not responsive to the concerns we’ve received on those issues,” Festersen said.
Gray, a Democrat who represents North Omaha, said he believes the Omaha Police Department has gotten a “bad rap” from some in the city, pointing to several successful community programs that work closely with police.
Police Chief Todd Schmaderer last week said a $2 million cut to the department could result in a loss of 20 officers. Gray, nodding to a recent spate of violence in Omaha, said that can’t happen.
“You all read the paper and see the news, or at least I hope you do: We’re in the midst of a gang war,” Gray said. “I need all hands on deck, including every police officer we can get. We’ve got to stop this violence again.”
Schmaderer pointed to several Omaha crime statistics that have gone down over the past decade. Omaha homicides and shootings in 2017, 2018 and 2019 were among the lowest on record, he said.
“That’s progress,” Schmaderer said.
Councilman Vinny Palermo, who represents South Omaha, expressed concerns that reduced police spending could hurt the department’s training practices.
When Gray first joined the council in 2009, 4% of officers were Black and 3% were Latino, he said. There were no Black officers at the sergeant level or higher.
Today, Black officers make up about 10% of the department, and Latino officers make up about 8%. He said he doesn’t want to see that progress undone if the department were forced to cut officers.
“My fear is that a number of those police officers that will have to be let go are going to be people that look like me,” said Gray, who is Black.
Council members Aimee Melton and Brinker Harding, Republicans who opposed the original amendment, both said they’re supportive of bolstering mental health services in the city.
But Melton said that people experiencing mental health crises can be a danger to themselves or others, and that officers must be present for safety.
“We can’t just send a social worker; there still has to be police there,” Melton said. “And at this point, if we (take money from the police), we’re going to have 20 less officers to respond to the mental health calls.”
The department has a co-responder program that places a civilian mental health practitioner in each of the city’s five precincts.
Harding said making progress on mental health initiatives is a long-term issue that should be approached as such. He said new programs need metrics in place to allow the city to measure successes and failures.
Alexander Matthews, one of the leaders of proBLAC, a local organization that supports and inspires activism, said that Tuesday was a “slap in the face” to the work being done by him and his peers.
But Matthews, who goes by the name Bear Alexander, said that work is far from over.
“We’ll continue to keep our knees on the back of the necks of our broken system in Omaha,” he said.
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