Gang- and drug-related deaths drove Omaha's 2010 homicide total, accounting for roughly half of the city's 34 slayings last year.
While the overall number of homicides was only slightly higher than the decade's average of 32, police statistics show that gang-related killings spiked last year.
At least 16 of last year's homicides were gang-related, the most recorded in the past decade and more than double 2009's tally of seven.
The 2010 toll offers a mixed message about efforts to defuse violent crime in Omaha.
While seeing some progress in the latter part of the year, police on balance struggled to build homicide cases strong enough for arrest and prosecution.
Compounding the problems, violent street crimes involving drugs or gang members often are the most difficult to solve. Investigators struggle to find witnesses willing to share what they know about a crime and to testify in court.
There's been no letup for investigators in the new year. Omaha recorded three homicides in the first week of January.
“I think some folks believe that we can do this just like they do on ‘CSI,' ” said Lt. Ken Kanger, head of the Omaha Police Department's crime analysis unit.
Police Chief Alex Hayes said a culture of not cooperating with police festers as gangs increasingly become embedded in society.
“My notion is that we're getting better information, but not good enough information to bring closure to some of these cases,” Hayes said.
“We have to have a cooperative effort within the community. It's paramount that we get this going in this community, the whole city.”
Civic leaders and law enforcement officials say aggressive policing efforts and work from community groups such as the Empowerment Network and Enough Is Enough helped ease the outburst of street violence that seized public attention in the first part of 2010.
Twelve people were shot in north Omaha in the last 17 days of May. Two of those victims died from their injuries. Seven people were wounded in five shootings on one day in March.
In fact, experts said, shootings dropped in some volatile neighborhoods after a multipronged effort that included:
» A summer jobs program to employ at-risk youths.
» Extensive citizen patrols to monitor the streets and emergency rooms.
» An intensive police effort to hunt down known violent offenders.
“Only 18 people in the whole city (were) killed who were not involved with gangs, which is a pretty good number,” said Bruce Ferrell, one of the city's first gang unit officers and now chairman of the nonprofit Midwest Gang Investigators Association.
“We've seen growing and continued collaboration between police and community groups and citizens that is making a more positive impact on youth and youth gun violence,” Ferrell said.
Police recorded 21 gang-related nonfatal drive-by shootings from April through June. Only nine are known to have occurred from July through September, the months when community leaders say stepped-up prevention and enforcement efforts took hold.
Fourteen shooting deaths occurred in northeast Omaha through June and five occurred in that area the rest of the year.
But aggravated assaults — defined as assaults involving any kind of weapon or serious beating, and a key indicator of an area's violent activity — increased citywide by 5 percent over 2009.
The 1,312 aggravated assaults reported by police in 2010 included at least 377 involving a gun through November — three more than in all of 2009.
Community leaders remain optimistic they can build on their momentum to combat violence.
“There's a lot of work to be done, we know that,” said Willie Barney, head of the Empowerment Network. “But to see the trend going in the right direction at the end of the year, it encouraged folks we're on the right path.”
Omaha's spike in gang-related violence came amid a nationwide downturn in violent crime rates that has occurred over the past few decades.
Statistics from the U.S. Justice Department show that the nation's murder rate has declined to levels not seen since the late 1960s. Omaha, for example, recorded 28 killings in 1969. The city's 44 homicides in 2008 were the most in a half-century.
The FBI reports that homicide levels decreased slightly in most parts of the country in the first half of 2010, including the Midwest, compared with 2009.
Keeping violent street crime down, Barney said, calls for intensive efforts to create job and educational opportunities for at-risk youths. A summer jobs program can deter violent crime in certain neighborhoods, he said, but employment opportunities for the rest of the year are needed, too.
“We just need to continue to intensify our efforts and continue to get people involved,” Barney said.
World-Herald staff writer Jason Kuiper contributed to this report.
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