The COVID crisis struck multiple blows to Omaha last year. Among the virus's most regrettable harms was how it undermined Omaha's progress in reducing its annual number of homicides.
Until last year, police outreach and cooperative community efforts had led to a significant decrease in Omaha homicides. That concerted effort gained momentum after 2015, when homicides in the city reached a record 50 deaths. By 2019, community efforts brought the annual figure down to 23. Each of those deaths was lamentable. Still, it was encouraging to see the downward trend.
But 2020, true to form, wouldn't let that improvement stand. Last year, Omaha's homicide total increased to 37. The increase here followed a general pattern in cities nationwide, as World-Herald reporting recently noted.
In 2021, it will take awhile to move out of the COVID emergency. But as we do, it should be possible to restart Omaha’s cooperative efforts to reduce homicides. This should be a priority for our city this year.
Part of the post-2015 success stemmed from more effective policing. Police gang unit officers built community relationships to gather intelligence. Improved shot-spotting technology helped officers get to shooting locations fast enough to prevent retaliatory shootings in some cases. Local and federal authorities worked together in targeting the city’s most violent gangs.
Neighborhood volunteers did vital work intervening after shootings to calm young gang members’ urges to seek immediate revenge.
Important, too, was the range of cooperative prevention efforts with local organizations to offer hope. In 2020, virus concerns meant the cancellation of events that brought together police and residents in positive activities, including National Night Out, which promotes a unified police-civilian message against violence.
Health safety protocols unavoidably created complications for police officers' sports-focused outreach programs. Omaha police gang specialists were no longer able to have weekly in-person meetings with youths once schools closed, and virtual sessions were less effective.
As Omaha gradually pushes back this year against COVID, police and local organizations can rekindle their important work on the public safety front. As past experience shows, the benefits for our city are tremendous, reflected in young people helped, communities uplifted and, above all, lives saved.