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Omaha City Council to vote on $42,500 settlement of racial profiling suit
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Omaha City Council to vote on $42,500 settlement of racial profiling suit

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The Omaha Police Department and 16 other law enforcement agencies in Nebraska didn't fully report domestic violence statistics from 2014 through 2019.

A Black mother and son from Iowa allege in a federal lawsuit that they were racially profiled when stopped on Interstate 80 by an Omaha police officer. On Tuesday, the Omaha City Council will consider a $42,500 payment to the family to settle the lawsuit.

The suit, which was filed in May, contends that Officer Jeffrey Vaughn violated the Iowans’ rights by initiating a traffic stop without suspicion or probable cause, used excessive force and unlawfully searched the vehicle.

“My clients are satisfied with the outcome,” lawyer Adam Sipple said of the pending agreement.

The City of Omaha, in its response on behalf of Vaughn, denied the allegations and said Vaughn had no prior knowledge of the occupants’ race, sex or age until they were pulled over. The city also says the vehicle was not searched.

Omaha City Attorney Matt Kuhse declined to comment on the case, other than to say “it’s the Law Department’s recommendation to the council that this is an appropriate settlement of this matter.”

According to their complaint, Meshelle Settles, 46, was driving a Chevrolet Malibu with her 20-year-old son, Elijah Kamara, in the passenger seat just after 9:30 a.m. June 24, 2020, when Vaughn pulled them over. The lawsuit says that Settles was not speeding, tailgating or driving recklessly, that the vehicle was in good driving condition and that no illicit drugs were in the vehicle, which was a rental car.

Settles alleged that Vaughn was unable to explain why he pulled them over, asked why they were using a rental car and denied Settles’ request to record their interaction. The suit contends that after additional officers arrived and the vehicle was searched, Vaughn told her that she had been “driving in the left lane for too long.” But Vaughn ultimately wrote her a warning citation for “following too closely,” according to a copy of the citation filed with the lawsuit.

Vaughn asked for Settles’ driver’s license and rental information, which she provided, and then asked her to get out of the car. Vaughn then asked her to get in his patrol car.

“Believing the encounter was based on the color of her skin, and concerned for her safety, Settles requested they remain on the side of the road behind her rental car,” the lawsuit says.

The suit says Kamara stayed in the passenger seat but watched his mother to make sure that she was OK. Vaughn went up to the passenger side and told Kamara to get out of the vehicle. Kamara put his hands on the dashboard “to show he was unarmed and not a threat.”

“In response, Vaughn slammed the passenger door and immediate drew his firearm and pointed it at Kamara,” the lawsuit alleges. “Vaughn continued to train his weapon on Kamara for approximately five to ten minutes before a second officer arrived.”

The city, in its response, said that Vaughn told Kamara multiple times to stay in the vehicle but that he kept trying to get out of the car.

“Officer Vaughn had to physically shut the door and hold it closed with both hands,” the city contended. “When Kamara refused to listen to the lawful commands of the law enforcement officer, and fearing for his safety, Officer Vaughn drew his weapon at Plantiff Kamara.”

The city said Vaughn moved to the back of the car and called for backup. When he was about 25 feet away, the city said, Vaughn lowered the gun and waited for more officers to arrive.

Settles said in her lawsuit that when more officers arrived, they ordered Kamara out of the vehicle. Vaughn, she said, then searched the car and found nothing illegal. Settles was issued the warning and allowed to go. As she returned to her car, she saw that the officers were laughing and she told them that she would pray for them.

Settles filed a complaint with the Omaha Police Department’s internal affairs unit, which was found “not sustained,” meaning that there was not enough evidence to prove or disprove the allegations, said Lt. Neal Bonacci, a department spokesman.

On her citation, Settles was identified as White, while “it is apparent that both Settles and Kamara are Black,” the lawsuit stated.

Sipple said there have been recent reports nationwide of police departments intentionally misreporting race in traffic stops to avoid accurate collection of racial profiling data.

“Vaughn also knew that if he falsely entered the race of Black person as ‘White,’ it would defeat the department’s ability to analyze whether he was targeting motorists based upon their race or ethnicity,” the lawsuit alleges.

Bonacci said that he couldn’t address the reason for the discrepancy in this case but that checks and balances are in place to ensure proper reporting by officers, including audits conducted by supervisors and scanning driver’s licenses to auto-populate a person’s traits in reports.

“In general, there’s no indication that our officers are using those tactics to cover up any sort of racial bias that any particular officer may have,” Bonacci said. “There’s no indication that’s true, and if there was, we would be investigating that.”

The Police Department said Vaughn, who has been an officer for about 19 years, still conducts traffic stops as an officer on the drug interdiction squad and is chiefly assigned to the K-9 unit of the tactical operations section.


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