Thirty-nine times this year, Omaha police detectives took hold of a yellow tape stretched across a street, lifted it over their heads and walked into a killing scene. They found spilled blood and exceptional grief.
About half of Omaha's 2012 homicides are linked to the city's 16 most violent street gangs, police said. In an effort to curb the violence, the city's new police chief has made several staffing changes in his first five months on the job.
He's teamed up gang unit officers and homicide detectives at slaying scenes, assigned more officers to the gang unit and cold case unit, put a bigger focus on gang-related cold cases and increased police involvement with community and anti-violence groups.
“It's a concern to me when we have young men and women being killed,” Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said. “It's gotten the full attention of the entire (criminal investigation) bureau. I'm sure they are tired of me asking about it.”
The number of homicides so far this year — 39 — is about the same as 2011, when 40 were recorded. However, it's still above the average of 34 homicides over the previous 10 years. (The 2011 total has been adjusted to include the slayings of three members of a Brazilian family in South Omaha. That was a missing persons case from December 2009 to January 2011, when first-degree murder charges were filed.)
About three-quarters of this year's Omaha homicides were shooting deaths. In many cases the bullets were fired from a vehicle.
Four men were stabbed; one teenage girl was asphyxiated.
The youngest victim was 15. The oldest, 64.
In the gang-related killings, police said, such slayings usually are about avenging the death of a fellow gang member. If a gang member is killed, and his friends suspect a rival gang member, they'll eventually — weeks, months or years later — try to kill that person, a member of his gang or someone who lives in a particular gang's territory.
“It's tit for tat,” said Capt. Kerry Neumann, who in October took over the Police Department's Criminal Investigations Bureau after heading the northeast precinct. “The gang mentality is 'If you shoot us, we're going to inflict emotional pain on you.' It's a cycle of violence.”
Sgt. Teresa Negron, who worked homicides for years, recently took over as head of the department's cold case unit. She oversees two other officers and is using her experience in homicide to look into cold cases, including those that were gang-related.
“It's toughest for the families,” Negron said. “It doesn't matter what (the victims) were doing. It was still their loved one.”
Schmaderer said the city's ongoing gang and drug violence has worried him since he took over as chief in August. Since then, three Omaha teenagers have been slain by gang members who, in at least one case, were out looking for a kill in a rival neighborhood.
In that instance, Montrell Wiseman, a 16-year-old South High student, was shot and killed Oct. 21 as he held open the door of a house near 21st and Binney Streets for three female friends. Five men have been arrested and charged in Wiseman's death and the shooting of Desjuha Wilkinson, also 16.
Police and prosecutors said the men were driving around in a rival gang's territory, looking for someone to shoot to avenge the death of another.
Wiseman and his friends had no connection to gangs; they were shot because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and because they were wearing red clothing — though it was Husker clothing, not clothing signifying gang ties.
“It doesn't matter,” Neumann said. “They'll shoot someone's mother standing on the porch.”
Gang violence in Omaha has led Schmaderer to initiate several changes he says will streamline the way officers investigate homicides.
He calls reducing violent crime his biggest goal.
For starters, he named Neumann as head of the Criminal Investigations Bureau and appointed Capt. Rich Gonzalez as head of narcotics, gangs and intelligence. The chief said both officers have years of experience in vice, homicide and on the street.
From here on out, Schmaderer said, both gang unit officers and homicide detectives will respond to homicide scenes after the call goes out. Before, the units would usually touch base, but it often was not until a few days later.
Gang unit officers have specific historical knowledge of gangs and gang members. They tend to know who has a beef with whom and what each gang is up to, police said. Each gang unit officer is assigned a specific gang to know inside and out.
Bruce Ferrell, a former Omaha police officer, is chairman of the Midwest Gang Investigators Association, a nonprofit that promotes a coordinated response to gang activity in 12 states. He called Schmaderer's changes “very positive steps ... at a time when many departments around the country are cutting back on their gang units.”
Police have identified more than 70 gangs in Omaha. Schmaderer said there are 11 in north Omaha and five in South Omaha that are particularly violent. Police declined to name the specific gangs or identify which ones are responsible for most of this year's killings.
In the Wiseman case, however, two of the men being tried for the death are members of the 44th Avenue Crips.
Schmaderer also has assigned “relief” officers to the gang unit who will fill in when regular officers are off duty so that work is always continuing.
Despite the new chief's efforts, detectives still have their work cut out for them.
Of this year's 39 homicides, arrests have been made in 16 cases.
From January to June, officers made arrests in 10 of 15 homicide cases. The second half hasn't been as successful. Of the 24 slayings from July to today, police made arrests in six cases.
In 2011, police made arrests in about half of that year's cases.
Schmaderer and Neumann said gang-related homicides are the most difficult to solve, as they often depend on the willingness of witnesses to come forward. But witnesses are often too afraid to tell detectives what they know, much less to testify in court.
Because of that, police are now working more closely with anti-violence groups in the hopes of opening up communication so that potential witnesses will be more willing to share what they know with officers — which could lead to more arrests.
“We want people to be comfortable with us so they'll talk to us,” Schmaderer said. “I believe in the long run you'll see a reduction in violent crime.”
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