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Omaha was hours away from tying a 14-year low for homicides before New Year's Eve slaying

Omaha was two hours away from tying 2018’s 14-year low for the number of the homicides.

And the Omaha Police Department was just shy of another remarkable statistic: No Omaha police officer had fired his or her gun at someone in 2019.

But about 10:10 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 31, both of those numbers changed because of a deadly shooting at Evans Tower, 24th and Evans Streets.

Dana Wells, 58, became the city’s 23rd and final criminal homicide victim of 2019. Police have said she was killed by 57-year-old Terry Hudson, who was fatally shot by an Omaha police officer shortly after he shot Wells. During that altercation, Officer Joshua Ames was shot in the leg.

Omaha police officials had said they couldn’t remember an entire calendar year in which a person hadn’t been wounded or killed by police fire.

Chief Todd Schmaderer attributed the low number of officer-involved shootings to several factors: the equipping of all patrol officers with body cameras and less-lethal Tasers; crisis-intervention training that teaches officers how to interact with people with mental illness; an emphasis on community policing; and luck.

Officer-involved shootings, he said, are “something that’s talked about nationally. We’ve seen the trend line go downward. ... There’s a lot of culture building that takes these numbers lower and lower every year.”

The department started on a high in 2019 after the city recorded no homicides for 106 straight days at the end of 2018. It was a historic streak that stretched to 125 days until Jan. 20, when 21-year-old Jacque Holbert became the first person in Omaha who was criminally slain in 2019.

MATT HANEY; ALIA CONLEY/THE WORLD-HERALD 

1. Jacque Holbert, 21, shot Jan. 20 near 38th and Burdette Streets.

2. Joseph Hellman, 37, killed Jan. 29 near 39th and Fort Streets. Police have not said how he died.

3. Robert Williams Jr., 28, shot Feb. 3 at 24th and Cuming Streets.

4. Elijah Foster, 18, shot Feb. 5 at 47th Street and Ellison Avenue.

5. Dylan M. Kenney, 25, stabbed April 7 at 13th and Center Streets.

6. Tyler Johnson, 24, shot May 4 at 46th Street and Camden Avenue.

7 and 8. Michael Sykora, 57, and Tracey Atkins, 50, shot June 18 near Ida Street and Northridge Drive.

9. Tanya Leffler, 37, shot in September 2018 near 20th and Maple Streets and died of her injuries June 21.

10. Jal Dak, 24, shot June 23 near 32nd and Seward Streets.

11. Leovardo Garcia, nine months old, suffered head trauma Aug. 3 at a home near 39th and Center Streets and died Aug. 26.

12. Michael A. Rowell Jr., 23, was shot Aug. 8 near 62nd and Maple Streets.

13. Kelly Barges was found dead Aug. 9 near 45th and Decatur Streets. Police said he had been beaten and strangled to death July 25.

14. Ar Li, 41, shot Aug. 14 near 49th and Hamilton Streets.

15. Bahy Altairi, 21, shot Oct. 2 near 32nd and L Streets.

16. Andrea Georgeson, 41, shot Oct. 23 near 108th Avenue and Mill Valley Road.

17. Legenn Clayton, four months old, injured Nov. 15 at a motel room near 144th Street and West Center Road and died Nov. 23 of head trauma.

18. Kenvaughn Glass, 19, shot Nov. 30 near 24th and Vane Streets.

19. Dustin Moheng, 21, found shot to death Dec. 2 at Ash and Weir Streets (northwest of 124th Avenue and Q Street).

20. Jethro DuFour, 33, shot Dec. 4 near Fifth and William Streets.

21. Charles Toles, 30, shot Dec. 13 near 18th and Emmet Streets.

22. Johnton Banks, 23, shot Dec. 26 near 30th Street and Stone Avenue (southwest of Miller Park).

23. Dana Wells, 58, became the city's 23rd and final criminal homicide victim of 2019. Police have said she was killed by 57-year-old Terry Hudson, who was fatally shot by an Omaha police officer shortly after he shot Wells. During that altercation, Officer Joshua Ames was shot in the leg.

Officials determined that Maurice Matlock was justified in the Sept. 15 fatal shooting of Deandre A. Hines, 26, and Nolan King was justified in the Sept. 28 stabbing of Shane Inks, 31.

The number of police officers in Omaha rose in 2019 to meet the needs of the growing city. The department opened its fifth precinct in the Elkhorn area in September, and three months later kicked off the eighth recruit class under Schmaderer’s command. The people who make it through training will put the department a step closer to 900 sworn officers in 2020.

Annual calls to 911 were up nearly 11% since 2015 — at more than 264,000 — and felony arrests have been inching higher every year.

Omaha officers in 2019 made more than 33,000 arrests and 44,000 traffic stops. Yet the numbers of homicides, shootings and shooting victims have declined.

Omaha also had the fewest homicides in the first three quarters of both 2018 and 2019 compared with similarly sized cities. Tulsa and Wichita, which have smaller populations than Omaha, had double or triple the number of homicides in those time periods.

As Tuesday night’s shooting made clear, luck and timing can play a role in whether officers are put in a position of having to use deadly force.

“With an agency and the city the size of Omaha, that can always happen,” Schmaderer said. When it does, he said, “we scrutinize it and vet it to the utmost degree so that we can make sure that we’re operating appropriately within our legal authority and our professional standards.”

There is no national database of shootings by law enforcement officers. But the FBI began collecting use-of-force data from agencies nationwide on Jan. 1, 2019; participation is voluntary. The Omaha department was one of 98 agencies that participated in a data collection pilot study in 2017.

The Washington Post, which tracks fatal shootings by police officers, reported that in 2018, officers nationwide killed nearly 1,000 people. According to preliminary numbers, the FBI said 47 law enforcement officers were slain in 2019.

In Omaha, the number of officer-involved shooting victims has decreased from a high of 11 (six of whom were fatally struck) in 2010 to one person — Hudson — killed in 2019. Since 2010, at least one person has been killed by an Omaha police officer each year except for the years 2011 and 2017. In those years, however, nine people and three people, respectively, were wounded by police gunfire in Omaha.

In December 2019, the department received 150 body-worn cameras, making for a total of 575 cameras for patrol, gang and SWAT unit officers. The cameras activate when an officer readies a Taser or turns on a cruiser’s emergency lights or its dashboard-mounted camera.

An Omaha officer’s body camera was not turned on during a June 2017 incident in which a man died in police custody after being repeatedly shocked with a Taser and punched. Officer Scotty Payne, who used the Taser on 29-year-old Zachary BearHeels, was the only officer at the scene who was wearing a body camera, but it was turned off — a violation of department policy.

Deputy Chief Ken Kanger said more people in Omaha know that officers wear body cameras and that the interactions with officers are being recorded. The cameras, he said, add accountability.

Kanger, who used to head the department’s gang unit, said the efforts in intervention and prevention are making a difference in reducing the number of homicides.

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The department hired two more gang prevention specialists n 2019, bringing the number to four, and continues its outreach through the Police Athletics for Community Engagement program, in which officers coach sports teams, and Operation NETS (Neighborhood Engagement Through Sports), through which police hand out free sports equipment while on patrol.

“That’s important to educate these kids at a young age and get involved in their life in a positive way,” Kanger said.

Department officials still meet weekly to talk about shootings and upticks in violence among gangs. A little more than half of 2019’s homicides were gang-related, police said, meaning that either the victim or the suspects were associated with a gang. That’s about average compared to previous years, said Omaha Police Capt. Steve Cerveny.

Schmaderer said the historically low numbers don’t minimize the pain victims’ families have gone through after the loss of a loved one. His department is doing all it can to curb violence, he said.

“Momentum is a very curious thing, and sometimes it can take you farther than what you anticipated,” he said. The number of homicides, Schmaderer said, “is a measure that has surpassed some of our goals. The key now is to keep it at those levels.”


Photos: 2019 homicide victims, crime scenes and prayer walks

Photos: 2019 homicide victims, crime scenes and prayer walks

Articles
Fires close in on thousands in Australia's coastal towns
'HELL ON EARTH'

SANCTUARY POINT, Australia — An Australian Navy troop carrier was preparing to evacuate up to 4,000 people trapped in a remote region of Victoria state by advancing wildfires that have consumed an area almost the size of West Virginia.

The situation in Mallacoota — a beach town popular with families over the holiday season — is so dire that officials spent Thursday assessing who would be capable of climbing ladders from small boats to a Navy ship anchored offshore, designed to carry 300 soldiers and 23 tanks.

Those unable to climb the ladders and wishing to leave will be flown out by helicopter, although heavy smoke that has reached as far as New Zealand is making flying hazardous.

Some 17 people, including eight this week, have been killed since the fires started in October, with at least another 17 missing and more than 1,000 homes and buildings destroyed.

More than 200 fires are burning in the continent's southeast, and firefighters fear the worst may be yet to come. Temperatures exceeding 100 degrees and high winds are forecast for Saturday, which could whip up existing blazes and trigger new fires up to seven miles from the main front.

In Mallacoota, families cried and hugged Thursday as they discussed whether to take up the evacuation offer or wait with their cars and belongings for the fires to burn out, which could take weeks. The pall of smoke contributed to the sense of desperation.

"You can feel it in your eyes. You can feel it in your lungs and that's made people even more desperate to get out," a journalist in the town, Elias Clure, said on the Australian Broadcast Corp. network.

"It is hell on earth," the owner of the Croajingolong Cafe, Michelle Roberts, told Reuters.

Farther north, in New South Wales state, the main coastal highway was cut off when a fire that had been under control flared up between the regional centers of Nowra and Ulladulla.

On a cloudless day, smoke reduced visibility on the road to 6 feet in some places, making driving for the firefighters dangerous. Three have already died in road accidents in the past few weeks.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service asked tourists vacationing in a 150-mile coastal strip along the state's south coast to leave Thursday morning.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked people to be patient as they navigated congested roads. Criticized last week for vacationing in Hawaii while the country burned, Morrison was heckled Thursday when he visited Cobargo, a town in southern New South Wales where most of the main street was wiped out Monday.

Earlier, he said the primary responsibility for fighting fires belongs to state governments, while taking credit for making military resources available.

The premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, visited towns Wednesday that were virtually wiped out, and passed on messages to family members from residents who could not reach the outside world because phone networks had failed.

One problem facing those who have lost homes, or fled with few possessions, is Australia's almost-ubiquitous use of contactless payments. With even landlines down, banks shut and automated teller machines empty, the cashless economy in some areas seized up, fire brigade officials said.

In the town of Sanctuary Point, three hours south of Sydney and a fewmiles from a major blaze, about 400 anxious residents attended a briefing Thursday by the regional fire commander. With conditions deteriorating, Superintendent Mark Williams said residents should leave soon if they aren't physically capable of defending their homes from the encroaching smoke and flames.

"What we have got is a massive event in front of us," he said, watched by representatives of the Australian Red Cross and state police. "If you're not prepared at the moment, you are running out of time."

For residents planning to stay and who need medical assistance, a local doctor said she would open her clinic to the community all weekend and provide free advice over the phone.

"That's what makes Australia great," Williams responded, triggering applause from the room.


Articles
U.S. drone strike in Iraq kills Iran's top general
Pentagon says Qassem Soleimani was planning attacks on U.S. envoys; Iran vows retaliation

BAGHDAD (AP) — The United States killed Iran's top general and the architect of Tehran's proxy wars in the Middle East in an airstrike at Baghdad's international airport early on Friday, an attack that threatens to dramatically ratchet up tensions in the region.

The targeted killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, could draw forceful Iranian retaliation against American interests in the region and spiral into a far larger conflict between the U.S. and Iran, endangering U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and beyond.

The Defense Department said it killed Soleimani because he "was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region." It also accused Soleimani of approving the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.

An adviser to Iran's President Hassan Rouhani quickly warned President Donald Trump of retaliation from Tehran.

"Trump through his gamble has dragged the U.S. into the most dangerous situation in the region," Hessameddin Ashena wrote on the social media app Telegram. "Whoever put his foot beyond the red line should be ready to face its consequences."

Iranian state television later in a commentary called Trump's order to kill Soleimani "the biggest miscalculation by the U.S." in the years since World War II. "The people of the region will no longer allow Americans to stay," the commentator said.

The airport strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, and five others, including the PMF's airport protocol officer, Mohammed Reda, Iraqi officials said.

Trump was vacationing on his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, but sent out a tweet of an American flag.

The dramatic attack comes at the start of a year in which Trump faces both a Senate trial following his impeachment by the U.S. House and a reelection campaign. It marks a potential turning point in the Middle East and represents a drastic change for American policy toward Iran after months of tensions.

Tehran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers. The U.S. also blames Iran for a series of attacks targeting tankers, as well as a September assault on Saudi Arabia's oil industry that temporarily halved its production.

The tensions took root in Trump's decision in May 2018 to withdraw the U.S. from Iran's nuclear deal with world powers, struck under his predecessor, Barack Obama.

The 62-year-old Soleimani was the target of Friday's U.S. attack, which was conducted by an armed American drone, according to a U.S. official. His vehicle was struck on an access road near the Baghdad airport.

A senior Iraqi security official said the airstrike took place near the cargo area after Soleimani left his plane and joined al-Muhandis and others in a car. The official said the plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria.

Two officials from the PMF said that Soleimani's body was torn to pieces in the attack and that they did not find the body of al-Muhandis. A senior politician said Soleimani's body was identified by the ring he wore.

It's unclear what legal authority the U.S. relied on to carry out the attack. American presidents claim broad authority to act without the approval of the Congress when U.S. personnel or interests are facing an imminent threat. The Pentagon did not provide evidence to back up its assertion that Soleimani was planning new attacks against Americans.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Trump owes a full explanation to Congress and the American people. "The present authorizations for use of military force in no way cover starting a possible new war. This step could bring the most consequential military confrontation in decades," Blumenthal said.

But Trump's allies were quick to praise the action. "To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more," tweeted GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

For Iran, the killing represents more than just the loss of a battlefield commander, but also a cultural icon who represented national pride and resilience while facing U.S. sanctions. While careful to avoid involving himself in politics, Soleimani's profile rose sharply as U.S. and Israeli officials blamed him for Iranian proxy attacks abroad.

While Iran's conventional military has suffered under 40 years of American sanctions, the Guard has built up a ballistic missile program. It also can strike asymmetrically in the region through forces like Lebanon's Hezbollah and Yemen's Houthi rebels. The U.S. long has blamed Iran for car bombings and kidnappings it never claimed.

As the head of the Quds, or Jersualem, Force of Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, Soleimani led all of its expeditionary forces and frequently shuttled between Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Quds Force members have deployed into Syria's long war to support President Bashar Assad, as well as into Iraq in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, a longtime foe of Tehran.

Soleimani rose to prominence by advising forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria on behalf of the embattled Assad.

U.S. officials say the Guard under Soleimani taught Iraqi militants how to manufacture and use especially deadly roadside bombs against U.S. troops after the invasion of Iraq. Iran has denied that.

Soleimani had been rumored dead several times, including in a 2006 airplane crash that killed other military officials in northwestern Iran and following a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of Assad. Rumors circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought near Aleppo, Syria.

Soleimani's killing follows the New Year's Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The two-day embassy attack, which ended Wednesday, prompted Trump to order about 750 U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East.


Plus
Omaha's new landlord registry takes effect for more than 80,000 rental properties

Omaha landlords must now register their rental properties as part of a housing code enforcement push aimed at improving living conditions for renters.

A new city registry requires landlords to log each of their rental properties and provide their contact information for city inspectors and tenants.

The city doesn’t yet know how many properties are rented locally, but the Planning Department estimates that there are about 80,000 dwellings.

The new housing ordinance, which took effect Jan. 1, also requires regular inspections. For now, any inspections will still be complaint-driven, targeted at rental houses and apartments with open city housing code violations and older violations not addressed in a timely fashion.

Come 2022, the city will inspect most rental properties once every 10 years. One exception: large apartment complexes, where the city will inspect a sample of units.

If inspectors find problems that violate city housing code, landlords will be required to fix the problems or face fines.

The Omaha City Council sought the ordinance after city inspectors found numerous problems at Yale Park Apartments, at 34th Avenue and Lake Streets, that forced the relocation of more than 500 people.

The city inspectors identified problems including leaky roofs, mold, sub-par plumbing and questionable electrical wiring.

KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD 

City Council President Ben Gray talks with Kay Anderson during the inspection of the Yale Park Apartments last week. “People have to get to the point where they’re tired of seeing things like this,” Gray said. “This is the tip of the iceberg.”

Safe housing advocates and groups supporting low-income renters pressed the council for regular, frequent inspections of all local rental properties.

Landlords and supporters argued that law-abiding property owners shouldn’t be punished for the deeds of bad actors. Some landlords have since sued to stop the ordinance, and the cases are still pending.

The ordinance passed by the councilincludes inspections once every decade and more frequent inspections of so-called problem properties.

The city hopes the registry will help it gauge the number of and quality of rental properties, including the distribution of affordable housing.

The aim of the inspections is to make sure that all renters have a safe place to live, City Councilman Ben Gray said.

Assistant Planning Director Stu Craven said the city is trying to make the law “effective but not really intrusive.”

Local landlord Richard McDonald said he worries about landlords being forced to fix problems caused by tenants.

As an example, he described one tenant he’s had who is comfortable living around large amounts of trash. What if that person called the city to complain? he asked.

“I don’t like it, but some people choose to live that way,” he said after a recent city briefing on the new law. “We can’t control everything.”

Under the ordinance, the owners of rental properties have 90 days to complete registration with the Planning Department, or until March 31.

“Our job is to see to it that the City of Omaha has livable dwellings,” said Anna Bespoyasny, the city’s building superintendent for permits and inspections.

Here’s what tenants and landlords need to know about the new rental registry and inspections ordinance, and how the city aims to implement the new law:

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What tenants need to know

  • The new law requires landlords to post a notice of who owns the property and how to reach a person responsible for the property.
  • The city recommends that renters first reach out to their landlord or property manager to fix a problem.
  • If a landlord doesn’t resolve a problem, the city recommends that renters with questions contact a tenant advocacy group or city housing enforcement about the issue. Tenant advocacy groups can often address problems by working with landlords. City inspectors can be reached at 402-444-5371, ext. 2070.
  • Legal Aid of Nebraska has put together an online handbook that explains the legal rights of landlords and tenants.

What landlords need to know

  • Property owners have until March 31 to register rental properties with the Omaha Planning Department. Those who don’t will be subject to inspections each year, instead of once a decade.
  • Under the law, landlords have 14 days to correct a code violation or request an extension from the Planning Department.
  • When mandatory inspections start in 2022, property owners will need to seek signatures from renters to let city inspectors in.
  • Landlords must file written or electronic notice with the Planning Department if the property’s ownership or management changes.

What the city will do

  • The city has built a new website for landlords and property management companies to register properties and seek more information, www.omaharentalinfo.cityofomaha.org.
  • The city has filled 10 of its 11 funded positions for housing inspectors. One inspector will manage the rental registry. Planning Director Dave Fanslau has said the city will hire additional inspectors as needed for mandatory inspections.
  • Omaha will have oversight of some properties beyond the city limits; the ordinance also applies to properties within the city’s three-mile zoning jurisdiction.
  • The Planning Department held a meeting for landlords and tenants on Dec. 18 about the new registry. Omaha plans another similar briefing in the coming months. A date has not yet been set.
Photos: Code violations at Omaha's Yale Park Apartments