Five Omaha mayoral candidates used a north Omaha forum to tout the importance of economic development and educational and crime-fighting initiatives.
A question of whether the city should revive its dormant police auditor position, one of the night's first topics, exposed the most fractures among the candidates — as it did during the 2009 mayoral race.
Monday's forum was held at the Omaha OIC building, which sits along the city's historic 24th Street corridor. Each candidate tried to craft his or her message to the setting, addressing the area's struggles with street violence and poverty, as well as its sometimes strained relationship with law enforcement.
In 2011, some residents renewed calls to revive the city's police auditor position after leaked security camera footage showed a group of Omaha officers forcefully taking Robert A. Wagner into custody outside Creighton University Medical Center. Two officers were fired for their role in the incident, then reinstated last year by an independent labor arbitrator.
In 2005, the police auditor's office cost the city $252,000. An unsuccessful proposal to restore the office in 2009 estimated the cost of the office at $125,000.
“I think the best police auditor is the mayor,” said State Sen. Brad Ashford, adding he would use the Nebraska Crime Commission to collect data on disparities in traffic stops in predominantly black neighborhoods compared with the rest of the city.
“It's an issue,” he said. “And my role as mayor is to look at that data and determine which way we should go. I don't want to hide behind a police auditor. I want to make those decisions straight up myself.”
City Council member Jean Stothert said she didn't support the auditor position, partly because of its potential fiscal cost. She said she would create citizen review boards to address complaints in what she described as rare cases in which officers “don't use good judgment.”
“If you have true community policing, what it means is the community takes part in making the policy,” Stothert said.
Mayor Jim Suttle said the auditor position was “still an issue and still something that we should be looking at.”
“But in the broader context, the priorities have shifted to job creation, and that's where I shifted my attention,” he said.
Suttle pledged to fill the job during his 2009 mayoral campaign.
Former City Council president Dan Welch also expressed support for the concept of a civilian review board, saying it could save money that could be invested elsewhere in the city.
“Right now I don't see that we need that,” he said of an auditor position. The Police Department's internal affairs investigators and legal system still provide oversight, he said.
Businessman Dave Nabity issued the evening's most vocal endorsement for the auditor position, describing it as “very important.”
“There's no question we have a big distrust situation in this community,” Nabity said. “I don't think we can begin to bring healing to the community unless we have a police auditor.”
Omaha's primary election is in April, followed by the general election in May. All Omaha city officials are elected on an officially nonpartisan basis.
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