Black and Latino Omahans responded with a mix of praise and criticism for police policy proposals announced by Omaha’s mayor and police chief Thursday.
And some offered advice on how to make the proposed changes into real reforms and not mere window dressing to calm a crisis.
The city’s policy changes on use of force and more ongoing anti-bias training reflect community desires expressed in forums led by the NAACP, Urban League of Nebraska, the Empowerment Network and other groups, said Willie Barney, the Empowerment Network’s founder and president.
He said the close work between Police Chief Todd Schmaderer and Omaha 360 has played a role in a sharp reduction in officer-involved shootings recently, and that previously adopted expansion of body cameras and mental health response teams were among several measures in the forums’ top 10 desires.
“For the last couple of weeks people have been saying what’s the next 10,” Barney said. “So it’s encouraging to see the chief of police here in Omaha step out on a number of those things that would be in that top 10 based on what we’re hearing from the community.”
Making sure that officers are required to intervene and report when they see something go wrong, he said, and banning chokeholds and knee-to-neck pins “are some of the more specific things that the community has been asking for.”
District 2 City Council member Ben Gray also praised the proposed changes as extending the progress that he believes the Omaha Police Department has made in community policing and community relations, including training and diversifying the department.
“They’ve come a long way,” Gray said, adding that Omaha’s department differs from those in some other cities with high-profile incidents. “We’re not Minneapolis. We’re not New York.”
Ja Keen Fox, one of the leaders of recent protests in Omaha, sees it differently. He said some of the policy changes appear good, but lack specificity.
“The biggest failure here is that there is no conversation about accountability and how the policy changes actually impact interactions that police have with their citizens,” Fox said. He noted that Omaha’s existing ban on chokeholds, for example, has an exception for when officers are attacked or face deadly force.
“We know police often use the line that they fear for their lives, and that alleviates them of all accountability in the interaction,” he said.
When policies have such caveats, “there is no real impetus for change, or behavioral change,” said Fox, who is a member of Mayor Jean Stothert’s LGBTQ+ advisory board.
Fox also questioned proposals that will require additional police spending, such as more training on Taser usage, at a time when some in the community want to shift funding away from police and into community services.
Sergio Sosa, executive director of the Heartland Workers Center, said the mayor’s announcement included “modest improvements” to police use of force policy that are encouraging.
“But there is no apparent increase in police transparency, accountability, or liability for misconduct under that policy,” Sosa said. And he said the proposed new training would not address “systemic problems in policing” such as profiling and military-style training.
Precious McKesson, president of the North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance and secretary of the local NAACP chapter, said the mayor’s diversity and inclusion focus and anti-bias training for police officers “are a step in the right direction.”
“It’s sad that it took this long for them to realize that this is what people have been asking for for many years, since before George Floyd,” McKesson said. “We’ve been asking of this, to be more diversified. So, glad you’re listening, but what took you so long to understand?”
She welcomes Stothert’s pledge to diversify city boards, commissions and city government in general, but said that needs to be a priority. She said the mayor and others need to find “fresh faces, new voices” of people involved in the community, including Black Lives Matter activists.
Gray welcomed Stothert’s plan to hire a diversity and inclusion manager, and said that position should have the same standing as the police and fire chiefs, as well as civil service protection against being fired for political reasons.