Though the Omaha police chief gave a forceful thumbs-down to police misconduct by firing four officers, a retired jeweler is forging ahead with a campaign to support first responders — called “Thumbs Up.”
Not that he disagrees with the decision of Police Chief Todd Schmaderer.
“I think the chief did the right thing,” said Ron Brodkey of Omaha, chairman of the “Thumbs Up” Appreciation initiative. “He set a precedent that he's not going to allow abusive and overzealous police to get by with these things. I'm all for him, 100 percent.”
In spite of the controversy over the March 21 incident near 33rd and Seward Streets, Brodkey said, police officers — and firefighters, too — on the whole deserve the community's support.
Through the First Responders Critical Support Foundation, he is urging people to literally flash a “thumbs-up” gesture when they see those public servants on the job. He'd even like Omaha to be known as the Thumbs-Up City.
It hasn't caught on so far, but Brodkey isn't discouraged. His focus is on elementary schools in five local districts, and he says it will take time. He has distributed fliers, student “ambassador” certificates, DVDs and PowerPoint information to 107 schools with a total of 62,000 pupils, and has spoken at three school assemblies. But no schools have invited him lately.
“No one has called me,” he said. “But schools have the option of doing it any way they wish. Teachers in the classroom can start a class. The principal sets the tone for what is done in a school.”
Matt Ray, executive director of student and family services for the Omaha Public Schools, explained the “Thumbs Up” initiative at a principals meeting Feb. 5. With an academic emphasis on “bell-to-bell instruction,” he said, the district isn't requiring a specific response from schools on the initiative.
“We left it up to each building to sort of work out a program in the best way it could,” Ray said. “It's up to each principal. I haven't heard any principals say they are not going to do it.”
Lisa Utterback, principal of Miller Park Elementary in north Omaha, said fliers were sent home with children but her school is not planning an assembly. “We have a lot of positive interaction with police officers here,” she said, “so we felt we didn't have a need to do something like that.”
The idea for “Thumbs Up” traces back to 2010, when Brodkey and friends reflected on the 9/11 terrorist attacks that claimed hundreds of firefighters and police officers. The group organized a “day of appreciation” luncheon, which was attended by more than 1,600 people.
Ray Somberg, president and executive director of the nonprofit first responders foundation, said $650,000 was raised, of which $460,000 paid for “critically needed equipment” for police and firefighters.
Since Aug. 1, 2011, he said, donors have contributed another $515,000, including $295,000 for smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors. The fundraising campaign for detectors continues, and Somberg said the goal is to have them installed “in every home in low-income areas of the city.” The chairman of the foundation's 21-member board is attorney Chuck Sederstrom.
Somberg said the incident that led to the firing of police officers hasn't come up as he approaches potential donors.
“Assuming for a minute that those four officers did wrong, then they deserve to be punished,” Somberg said. “But in what group of any size aren't there some who act badly? Ninety-nine percent of police are dedicated servants with dangerous jobs, and they deserve to be appreciated.”
The firings resulted from complaints and a video shot from a house on Seward Street as three brothers were arrested. The video, which captured part of an altercation, was posted on YouTube. The City of Omaha's personnel process will determine if the firings are upheld.
Click here to view The World-Herald's coverage of the March 21 incident.
Meanwhile, Ron Brodkey said he is available to speak at elementary schools in the five districts — Omaha Public Schools, Millard, Ralston, Westside and Elkhorn — and can arrange for police and firefighters to participate.
“I think appreciation is something left out of the curriculum,” he said. “I don't really think kids understand how important it is to show someone appreciation for what they have done.”
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