LAST OF A 3-PART SERIES
Part 1: The Levering family has struggled through generations of poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, child neglect and crime.
Part 2: Two Levering success stories — a young man who perseveres despite overwhelming odds, and a woman who is finding success in life far from her Omaha family.
Part 3: The Leverings' criminal activity creates problems for the entire community.
Nikko Jenkins is charged with killing four people in Omaha this year, but criminal activity in his family began decades ago. An investigation into the family's history revealed patterns of violence, child neglect and drug and alcohol abuse. The behavior has escalated from generation to generation, making the Leverings one of the city's most notorious crime families.
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Long-term solutions are needed before families such as the Leverings can break away from their generation-to-generation cycle of crime, drug and alcohol abuse and child neglect.
Police have battled crime in north Omaha for decades, and when Todd Schmaderer became Omaha police chief in 2012, he made it one of his top priorities to get violent offenders off the streets.
But ending the cycle of crime will take more than police work, he said recently.
“We cannot arrest ourselves out of this problem,” Schmaderer said. “There are root causes to criminality, such as poverty, educational gaps, family dynamics and indifference to crime, that must be addressed in order to see a long-term impact.”
Though not all children of criminals become criminals themselves, they are more vulnerable.
“The tendency to be a criminal can be passed from generation to generation,” said Dr. Alan Lipman, the founder and director of the Center for the Study of Violence in Washington, D.C. “You are being taught how to behave on a daily basis when you are watching your parents and family commit crimes.”
The latest anti-violence approach in Omaha focuses heavily on long-term solutions, including intervening early in life before violence gets started, and looking at root causes to gang life, such as joblessness.
“We'll never be a great city until we reduce the violence in north Omaha,” State Sen. Brad Ashford said.
The state needs to play a bigger role in stopping violence, he said. To that end, the state about four years ago created an Office of Violence Prevention, which has led to various changes in the justice system.
Legislators have addressed truancy through a controversial law intended to keep at-risk youths in school. Under the law, the Douglas County Attorney's Office can become involved if a student has more than 20 absences, and in the worst cases, students and their parents can face charges.
Earlier this year, lawmakers began to revamp the juvenile justice system by moving away from detention and providing more treatment services to troubled youths and their families in their homes.
Next up is the adult prison system, Ashford said.
He plans to propose a change in how state prisons treat offenders who are about to be released. He is pressing for more programming to rehabilitate violent offenders before they return to the community.
“It's a change in culture,” Ashford said. “That's what we're striving for this session.”
A spike in shootings in the summer of 2007 led to the creation of the Empowerment Network, a coalition of various community groups that aims to decrease north Omaha violence. The coalition includes elected officials, community groups such as the Urban League of Nebraska, law enforcement officials and others.
The network studied violence prevention efforts and found that many gang members became involved as a way to make money. Many at-risk youths are interested in finding employment, network leaders said.
“The vast majority of young people that are involved in gang activity and other illegal acts don't want to do what they're doing,” Gray said.
The network responded, creating a jobs and job-training program. The network coordinates with businesses and Metropolitan Community College to provide job training and jobs for teens and young adults who might not have been able to get them otherwise.
The program has focused on the summer months, when the city has historically seen a spike in violence.
Executive Director Willie Barney hopes eventually to make the jobs program year-round. He'd also like to tackle a shortage of safe, affordable housing in north Omaha.
“This is really an issue that has to be solved,” Barney said. “And it's been going on way too long.”
Helping young children to be prepared for school is another key issue, advocates say. Research indicates that preparing children for school helps keep them in school later in life, improving their future opportunities.
A number of organizations are working on efforts to improve early childhood education.
The Learning Community, for example, is building a new learning center at 24th and Franklin Streets to help teach children from infancy forward so they don't enter kindergarten behind the learning curve. The program also has components designed to teach parenting skills and to train day care providers.
An educational philanthropy, Building Bright Futures, refocused its efforts this year to address the shortage of early childhood education teachers and helping districts prepare principals to lead high-poverty schools.
Community leaders say that there's no single, easy answer and that solutions will take time.
“We've kind of dug a hole over the last two or three generations over what's happened with opportunities for the working class,” said Ryan Spohn, director of the Consortium for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“We've kind of dug a hole with what we've allowed to happened with our public education system,” Spohn said. “And it can take generations to dig back out of that.”