Omaha Police Department officers have dropped suspected gang members in their rivals' territory. Police have harassed suspected gang members with questionable traffic stops. Authorities have interfered with the work of local gang interventionists.
These are among the allegations leveled by two University of Nebraska at Omaha researchers in an assessment of the city's street gangs, and the ongoing efforts to fight them.
But several current and former law enforcement officials, Mayor Jim Suttle's office and leaders of north Omaha's Empowerment Network condemn many of the report's conclusions.
Those officials say the report by Pete Simi and Dennis Hoffman is an inaccurate, biased and incomplete portrayal of local anti-gang efforts that could threaten public safety, partly by eroding police-community relations.
There was such disdain for the report that the Empowerment Network — which had requested the study of Omaha's gangs and had received Omaha Community Foundation funding — may commission a new study from different analysts.
Some community leaders who reviewed the report said they were surprised by the amount of criticism in it. Some of them pointed to what they said was biased language in the report, and rejected the findings as a collection of opinions and conclusions based on little evidence.
The report, which includes information based on anonymous interviews with current and former gang members or others in the community, makes a wide variety of allegations against local institutions such as the Omaha Public Schools and Omaha Police Department.
The researchers acknowledged they had no direct proof of some of the claims their interviews uncovered.
“We are not perfect, and we know that there's room for improvement,” said Willie Barney, head of the Empowerment Network. But “the report that UNO completed doesn't even come close to documenting the actual work that has happened and the actual results that have been generated.”
Said interim Police Chief David Baker: “It's an opinion piece, not a research piece.”
Despite the criticism, the UNO professors said they stand behind their research.
The report states Omaha's “official, undeclared War on Gangs” is a flaccid effort that relies on ineffective or inappropriate law enforcement tactics that sometimes alienate the community.
The city's broader anti-gang initiatives don't fully comply with federal models on best practices, it says, while some of local law enforcement's efforts to prosecute violent offenders lack oversight.
A pervasive sense of distrust exists between police and parts of the community, the researchers wrote. One of the study's recommendations: reinstate the city's public safety auditor.
Simi and Hoffman also said:
» Gang databases and other intelligence police use to track gang activity are incomplete and ineffective.
» It is impossible to determine whether gang interventionists hired by the Police Department and Omaha Public Schools work efficiently.
To collect their information, researchers said they interviewed some 70 current and former Omaha gang members. They also interviewed local gang interventionists and law enforcement officials, and other members of the community.
Researchers sat in on a limited number of ride-alongs with Omaha police officers, reviewed census and crime data from northeast and southeast Omaha, and conducted an anonymous survey of 293 community members about gang-related matters.
One source said second-graders in one public school have no textbooks or workbooks. Several gang members interviewed by researchers alleged a wide variety of police misconduct. Researchers also cited suspicions that some local gang interventionists' phones were wiretapped.
An OPS administrator said the district was unaware of any specific shortage of textbooks or work materials for its students. Baker said no formal complaints had been filed about the alleged drop-offs of gang members or alleged interference with gang interventionists.
“As evaluators, we do not assume the perceptions and accounts we report are accurate,” the report reads. “Regardless of their accuracy, perceptions have real consequences.”
The responsible thing for the city to do, Simi said, “would be to call for a much bigger, broader study to investigate these issues systematically and in a focused way.”
“If there's even a semblance of a chance that any of these allegations are accurate, from a public safety standpoint they demand attention,” Simi said.
The World-Herald has obtained two versions of the report: the final draft, which ignited the backroom outrage over the past month, and a slightly revised version that was issued after a heated meeting between the researchers and a panel of local officials.
Though some copies of the 139-page revised report have changed hands, it's unlikely local officials will release it.
Simi said the American Association of University Professors, an academic freedom and educational standards group, plans to post a version on its website.
Much of the researchers' criticism focuses on local law enforcement.
The Police Department's database of suspected gang members can unfairly target individuals based on their associates or personal circumstances, researchers said, rather than their actual involvement in gang activity.
Partly guided by federal regulations, the department's gang database uses 12 criteria to document gang members, including self-admission, tattoos, involvement reported by a reliable informant, or involvement in gang-related crime. As of mid-2011, the database identified 3,335 suspected gang members who were active in roughly 80 gang cliques across the city, according to the report.
An individual is labeled as a “member” if he meets three of the 12 criteria; as an “associate” if he meets two; and as “hard core” if he is involved in violent gang-related crimes or can be shown to have a leadership role in a gang. A name in the database will be purged from it after a certain period of time if that person doesn't have any troubling contact with police.
“Hypothetically, this means a person on the gang list could have his or her clock restarted for something as trivial as a traffic stop in which this person is riding in a car with a childhood friend who happens to be a gang member,” Simi and Hoffman wrote. Omaha Police Department policy, the report contends, is “based on the ‘guilt by association' fallacy.”
Baker disputed that assertion, saying the database is one of many tools the department maintains to investigate gang activity.
“It's used for intelligence work,” Baker said of the database. “It doesn't damn anybody to a life of crime. It's not used to convict anyone. It's not a crime to be a gang member.”
Gang interventionists who work for the Police Department and school district are not operating effectively, the researchers contended.
“For reasons that are unclear, OPS schools are not systematically tracking gang activity among their students,” the report says. The school district's sole gang interventionist is not allowed to maintain statistics or other records necessary to determine if their work is effective, the professors wrote.
Meanwhile, researchers said, the school district does not participate in a statewide risk assessment that could help determine which of its students might be inclined to engage in delinquent behavior.
Researchers said they are unable to determine whether the Omaha Police Department's gang interventionist — a position largely funded through grant funds — coordinates duties with local schools, though the interventionist frequently works with OPS students.
The school district acknowledged it employs only one gang interventionist — a former Omaha police officer — but said he is supported by staff and faculty members around OPS. Social workers, counselors and administrators also help with gang interventions, said Matt Ray, the OPS director of student community services.
“His role is to help schools help students if there's buildingwide gang issues,” Ray said of the district's gang interventionist. “But he's not alone in this.”
Ray also said the school's gang interventionist coordinates efforts with the police interventionist.
“There definitely is communication,” Ray said. “They definitely are targeting specific things that are showing up in the building.”
Despite the controversy, Simi said, the research ought to provide a way for the community to start asking broader questions about the problems it faces.
“This is not a final endpoint,” Simi said. “We don't claim it is. It's a place to start asking questions.”
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