Can Omaha have a capable police force but also adopt responsible reforms to promote oversight and accountability?
The answer should be — must be — yes.
Mayor Jean Stothert last week introduced a responsible budget that included appropriate funding for, and improvements to, the Omaha Police Department. At the same time, the State Legislature had important floor discussion that underscored the need for greater focus — and action — on racial justice.
A stark silence fell across the legislative chamber Thursday morning as colleagues listened to State Sen. Justin Wayne, one of the Legislature’s two Black members, describe how an Omaha police officer pulled a gun on him several years ago after he was stopped for a defective taillight while driving a van full of fifth- and sixth-graders to a basketball practice on North 30th Street. During the incident, Wayne said, the police officer had grown agitated when he saw the youngsters fidgeting in the van’s back seat.
Hearings held by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee this spring featured extensive complaints from minority men and women about similar police stops.
Unlike most of his colleagues in the Legislature, Wayne said, he had to give his children “the talk,” about how Black people must take extra care when they’re stopped by police to avoid the situation escalating to a dangerous level. White colleagues in the Legislature, speaking later, emphasized this gulf in experience between white children in Nebraska and those of minority backgrounds.
The Legislature, the senators said, has a duty to demonstrate its awareness of minority concerns and its willingness to address them.
Following the floor debate, the Legislature voted 32-4 to grant Wayne an exception to legislative rules so he could introduce a bill for police oversight. Under the proposal, all Nebraska communities with a full-time police officer would be required to appoint a citizen committee to provide oversight over police activities.
Lincoln has such an oversight board. In Omaha, Stothert created a six-member Citizen Complaint Review Board in 2014, but four years ago, several members resigned over complaints that the board was worthless. This summer Stothert moved to strengthen it in the wake of protests over racial equity.
The Iowa Legislature showed this summer that it’s possible for state lawmakers to take prompt action on police reform. They passed needed legislation over a 10-day period. Surely the Nebraska Legislature can do the same.
It’s entirely possible for Omaha and other Nebraska communities to have a capable police force and at the same time promote a culture of respect for all citizens, regardless of background.
With her budget proposal, Stothert has put forward several worthy ideas. The Omaha Police Department will:
» Expand its inclusion of mental health practitioners to respond with police on mental health-related calls. The department failed tragically in that regard in 2017, when Zachary Bear Heels, a mentally ill man, died after an incident in which Omaha police punched him repeatedly and shocked him multiple times with a Taser.
» Increase the number of officers with body cameras.
» Purchase new Tasers that will sound a “de-escalation warning” before an officer discharges the device. Officers also will receive additional Taser training.
Calls for greater attention to Omaha’s social needs, as a preventive to crime, must involve more than the city government. Douglas County, state agencies and nonprofits all have significant roles.
The local philanthropic community has a particular obligation: It must explore new, innovative options to better address Omaha-area mental health and substance abuse needs, to reduce reliance on law enforcement to handle such cases.
Police protection is a fundamental need for a society. So is racial justice. Omaha and Nebraska must strive, through collaboration and innovation, to achieve both.
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