One of four Omaha police officers fired Friday allegedly sought to destroy video footage of a controversial north Omaha arrest, while some other officers allegedly laid plans to cover up the incident, The World-Herald has learned.
A new investigation into the allegations could lead to charges of evidence tampering and witness tampering.
That inquiry is in the early stages of examining not only the videotaped arrest of an Omaha man, but also what occurred outside public view after officers pursued the man's brother into his family's home near 33rd and Seward Streets.
The Douglas County Attorney's Office is conducting the investigation, with help from the Nebraska State Patrol.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine declined to comment on any specifics of his investigation, saying it was too early to know whether any criminal charges would be filed. He did say charges were “certainly possible and, I think, likely.”
“The information that we've been privy to is that there was evidence that was mishandled in that residence by Omaha police officers,” Kleine said at a Friday press conference.
“There's allegations, or information, regarding mishandling of evidence. I don't want to get any more detailed than that at this point in time.”
Meanwhile, an internal Omaha Police Department investigation into the March 21 incident is largely complete, Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said Friday.
Schmaderer, saying he would “not tolerate unprofessional acts” by officers, announced that he had fired four officers, including a sergeant. Three additional officers have been placed on administrative leave, and an eighth has been reassigned from regular duties.
What happened inside the home — and during the ensuing Police Department investigation — forms part of the basis for Schmaderer's decision to terminate some of the officers, The World-Herald has learned.
Investigators seek to amass a variety of evidence, including subpoenas of Omaha Police Department records, video evidence and 911 records.
Schmaderer's unprecedented actions represent a sweeping level of discipline, reached after a two-week internal probe conducted by five department investigators and a lieutenant.
“I also knew regardless of my findings, public trust has been damaged, and I needed to take steps to restore that public trust,” the chief said Friday. “Many of the police actions that took place that day are in violation of our policies and do not represent how I want our officers to carry themselves.”
He declined to identify the officers being disciplined, citing provisions in the city's police union contract that prohibit him from discussing personnel issues. Schmaderer said he could not detail what role each of the disciplined officers played at the scene, the grounds for disciplining those involved or whether any use of force was justified.
• Public reactions: Omaha responds to police firings
• Arrest video: Watch the controversial arrest unfold
• Timeline: March 21 events at 33rd and Seward Streets
• Past firings: Recent timeline of Omaha police officer dismissals
• Mayor supports chief: Mayor Jim Suttle released a statement about the firings
The World-Herald has learned that the fired officers are Sgt. Aaron P. Von Behren and Officers Bradley D. Canterbury, James T. Kinsella and Justin A. Reeve:
» Von Behren, a supervisor, is accused of attempting to coordinate stories of the officers involved.
» Canterbury's actions were captured on camera (he never left the view of a videotape taken from a neighbor's house) as he took 28-year-old Octavious Johnson to the ground and appeared to strike him several times.
» Kinsella is alleged to have removed a memory card from a camera used by one of Johnson's brothers to videotape officers' actions, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
» Details on Reeve's role were unavailable Friday.
Still under investigation are Officers Dyea L. Rowland, Matthew C. Worm, John D. Payne and Joseph A. Koenig.
Kleine said nine Nebraska State Patrol troopers are helping three investigators in his office to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing by some of the involved officers.
The possible criminal conduct was “an affront to all law enforcement and the criminal justice system as a whole,” Kleine said. “I want to assure the public that this conduct won't be tolerated. It will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Schmaderer said his department continues to investigate the incident and could determine that more disciplinary action is warranted.
The Police Department investigation began after footage appeared on YouTube two weeks ago of the arrests of brothers Octavious, Juaquez and Demetrius Johnson, near 33rd and Seward Streets.
Three officers initially responded to the scene. Altogether, after a “Help an officer” call was radioed, 21 officers and two command officers were involved.
The video, taken from the neighbor's house, led to allegations that excessive force was used in Octavious Johnson's arrest. Questions also were raised about whether officers had grounds to enter the family's home after they chased 23-year-old Juaquez Johnson inside.
Schmaderer asked the local FBI office to help review the investigation and consulted with the Douglas County Attorney's Office and the City Prosecutor's Office and legal department.
The Johnson family watched Schmaderer's press conference live but declined to comment on the firings.
Juaquez Johnson did say he was thankful to the man who shot the YouTube video, whom he described as his brother's best friend. The video had nearly 335,000 views by Friday evening.
Kleine's investigation is separate from any federal investigation into whether any of the Johnsons' civil rights were violated, though investigators will no doubt share information, Kleine said.
The terminated employees were served with formal written notice of their discipline beginning Thursday evening. They are entitled to a hearing with the city's Human Resources Department before any discipline is effective.
The police labor contract also allows officers to appeal discipline to a city board or independent labor arbitrator.
Sgt. John Wells, head of the city's police union, described the firings as “severe,” saying he would review the facts of the case but also that he trusted Schmaderer's judgment.
If the city's Human Resources Department upholds the firings, Wells said, the officers are entitled to ask the union's executive board for assistance with their legal defense. The board would make a recommendation, which union members would vote on. The union has declined to offer legal defense to officers at times in the past, Wells said.
Wells said it would be “pure speculation” to talk about any potential appeals or requests for legal defense.
Public outcry over the videotaped arrest led to fresh calls for police oversight.
Schmaderer said he spoke with north Omaha religious representatives, the Omaha 360 group and other community leaders in the event's aftermath.
“The last thing I want,” Schmaderer said, “is to derail the progress we are making in reducing violent crime in Omaha.”
World-Herald staff writers Todd Cooper, Maggie O'Brien and Mary Rezac contributed to this report.
Contact the writers:
402-444-1068, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/PerezJr
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OMAHA POLICE FIRINGS
World-Herald archives reveal no previous cases in the last 25 years in which more than two officers were fired over a single incident.
It should be noted that when an incident did not result in criminal charges, the fired officers were later reinstated.
Here are some of the most recent firings:
• September 2012: Officer Kevin Cave either resigns or is fired amid an FBI investigation of his use of a computer database. He is indicted in December 2012. City maintains it fired Cave; he contends he resigns before termination takes effect.
• February 2011: Sgt. Lance Harrison is fired by Police Chief Alex Hayes for a road rage incident while off duty. In May 2010 he was charged in Sarpy County with two misdemeanors, reckless driving and assault. The charges are later enchanced to felonies — terroristic threats and use of a weapon to commit a felony. In November 2011, a jury convicts Harrison on terroristic threats charge and acquitts him on the weapons charge.
• September 2011: Officers Aaron Pennington and Jackie Dolinsky are fired by Police Chief Alex Hayes for their roles in a videotaped fight outside Creighton Medical Center during the arrest of Robert A. Wagner. No criminal charges are filed. In June 2012, Dolinsky is reinstated by an independent arbitrator. She is disciplined in an unspecified manner and is to receive additional training. In January 2013, Pennington is reinstated by an arbitrator. He is awarded back pay for months of missed work and docked two days of pay.
• January 2010: David M. Kass is off the force after he is convicted of online child enticement; he had been on unpaid administrative leave since his July 2009 arrest. Sarpy County authorities said at trial that Kass had a sexually graphic online chat with a person he'd been told was a 14-year-old girl but was actually a La Vista police officer.
• July 2005: Officer Scott Antoniak is charged with first-degree sexual assault after he is accused of coercing a prostitute to perform oral sex on him in a police cruiser. He was placed on paid suspension during the internal and criminal investigations and then fired by Police Chief Thomas Warren. Antoniak is sentenced to five years of probation after being found guilty of first-degree sexual assault and, in May 2010, lost his license to work as a law enforcement officer.
• December 2003: Officer Tariq Al-Amin is fired by Police Chief Thomas Warren after making controversial statements on a cable television program. In March 2004, Al-Amin returns to work after the Personnel Board decided his punishment was too harsh and voted unanimously to give him back his job if he apologized publicly for his statements. Al-Amin later retired and is now a candidate for City Council in District 2.
• March 2002: Officers Reginald and Carma Gunter, husband and wife, are fired by Police Chief Don Carey after an internal police complaint and a civil lawsuit are filed, claiming the couple took $38,796 from a bank account without the owner's permission. In April 2002, the officers were reinstated under an agreement that the couple pay full restitution and accept their time away from the job as a suspension.
— World-Herald librarian Jeanne Hauser