The Omaha Police Department is gearing up to train its 105 sergeants in ethics, leadership and other command duties in the wake of the firing of four officers — including a sergeant — in connection a March incident in north Omaha.
Professionalism in police work “starts with the front-line supervisors,” said Deputy Chief Greg Gonzalez, who oversees training for the department. “We know they are critical to our organization's success.”
Police Chief Todd Schmaderer has ordered all sergeants to participate in eight hours of training scheduled for later this month.
The training is a response to the arrests of three brothers at 33rd and Seward Streets. The March 21 arrests, which were videotaped and posted on YouTube, led to community complaints of excessive force and triggered an investigation into possible evidence-tampering and a cover-up. Four officers were fired and four others were disciplined.
Douglas County Prosecutor Don Kleine is weighing possible criminal charges against the fired officers.
Deputy Chief Dave Baker said the current force is less experienced than in the recent past, largely because of a wave of recent retirements.
“We're a little bit younger and a little less experienced than we've been before,” said Baker, who has been with the department for 26 years.
The department doesn't keep historical statistics on officer experience, said Lt. Darci Tierney.
The average experience level of Omaha officers is a little more than 10 years. Commanders — which include sergeants and higher-ranked officers — have an average of 18 years on the job. The average age of officers is just shy of 39.
John Crank, a criminal justice professor at University of Nebraska at Omaha, said a department can struggle if officers move too quickly through the ranks. But more important than experience is training, he said.
“A big part of training is to learn how to back up and cool off,” Crank said. “They want to set the world on fire, and a big part of good training is how to temper that.”
Gonzalez said that while the coming training is directly related to the Seward Street arrests, its purpose is broader.
Each commander will participate in a daylong workshop at the Police Academy the week of May 13. The specifics of the training still are being worked out, but topics will include leadership, ethical behavior on the job and social media liability.
Trainers also will talk about the importance of officers writing thorough incident reports and training them about a new online program designed to streamline how police document interactions with the public, such as use of force, destruction of property, discharging a firearm or other incidents.
Officers also will be encouraged to seek out a peer support program if they're having personal or professional problems.
Gonzalez said officers typically attend training sessions throughout the year and are mandated to complete 32 to 40 hours of training every year.
Thomas Warren, a former Omaha police chief and current head of the Urban League of Nebraska, said the added training shows that Schmaderer, who took over the department's helm in August, “wants to establish his own leadership style and wants to convey his own succinct message to his commanding staff. He wants to set the tone, so they know his expectations.”
Two commanders and 21 officers were at the scene of the arrests near 33rd and Seward Streets. It began with a scuffle over expired license plates and escalated into a top-priority “help an officer” call.
Police have said Octavious Johnson, 28, arrived in his car, his tires screeching, and became combative. A YouTube video shot from a neighbor's window shows Johnson being taken down, handcuffed and apparently struck multiple times by an officer.
Police also can be heard on the video yelling at Johnson's brother Juaquez Johnson, 23, who was on the sidewalk and yelling at officers. Juaquez Johnson also was recording the incident on his cellphone.
After he went inside a nearby house, several officers followed him. His relatives have said officers were trying to take his cellphone to destroy evidence of the blows to his brother.
Police arrested Juaquez Johnson on suspicion of obstruction. A third brother, Demetrius Johnson, 22, was arrested on suspicion of obstructing police and for having an outstanding warrant.
The four officers fired after the incident were: Sgt. Aaron P. Von Behren and Officers James T. Kinsella, Bradley D. Canterbury and Justin A. Reeve.
Under provisions of the city's police union contract, terminated officers have 10 working days from receiving final word of their firings to appeal the decision either to a city board or independent labor arbitrator.
Von Behren and Kinsella had not notified the city of any potential appeal by Monday.
Canterbury and Reeve both recently signaled their intent to appeal their terminations to an arbitrator, with assistance from the city's police officers' union.
The department probe led to allegations that one of the four sought to destroy video footage of the arrest and that some other officers made plans to cover up the incident. Investigators with the Nebraska State Patrol have assisted a criminal investigation into those allegations led by the Douglas County Attorney's Office.
Schmaderer has said he can't comment on specifics of the incident, citing the internal investigation and provisions in the police union contract that prohibit him from discussing personnel issues.
“The Seward Street situation aside, as a supervisor and a manager, immediately you have to be able to assist a situation, be decisive in your actions and not allow a bad situation to deteriorate or get worse,” Warren said. “Oftentimes it comes with experience, maturity and professionalism.”
World-Herald staff writer Juan Perez Jr. contributed to this report.
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