Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer is determined not to allow racial tensions between police and the community to escalate to a Ferguson-esque atmosphere.
Schmaderer said the department is dedicated to following policing standards established by the U.S. Justice Department and is making strides to better train officers on when it is appropriate to shoot.
Additionally, for the first time, Schmaderer says he is putting all of his officers through training sponsored by the Justice Department. The Fair and Impartial Policing training is meant to ensure that all Omaha police officers treat every person fairly, equally and impartially, he said.
Last week, the Justice Department issued a report accusing Ferguson, Missouri, law enforcement and court officials of widespread bias against African-American residents. The report says the police department encouraged a “pattern of unconstitutional policing.”
Since then, the Ferguson police chief and at least five other city employees have resigned. Protests started in the city after the August officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown. On Thursday, two officers were shot and wounded at a protest outside of the Ferguson Police Department.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska has pointed out that Omaha isn’t devoid of racial divides, but it has also applauded Omaha police for taking steps to bridge those divides.
From 2002 to 2013, no Nebraska law enforcement agency validated a citizen’s allegation of racial profiling against an officer, according to an April 2014 state crime commission report. In Omaha, 82 people have filed complaints of racial profiling against the Omaha department since 2003. In those cases, 14 officers have been exonerated, while 38 cases were “not sustained.”
Among the ACLU’s complaints: Minority drivers in Nebraska are more likely than white motorists to get pulled over, searched and arrested by law enforcement, according to a 2014 ACLU report. The group has also complained about the department’s use of force and has said some police officers are not adequately trained to deal with people with mental disorders.
The group has called for police to wear body cameras, and Schmaderer says up to 50 officers should have the option to wear the devices by summer. Schmaderer has said it is difficult to prove that racial profiling occurred without video or audio evidence.
“Cameras, in general, are a really good thing for us,” he said.
The police chief also said that the most recent police recruit class is the most diverse to date. He did not provide the number of minorities in the class.
“I believe we have a very good police department with officers who truly care about the community,” Schmaderer said.
On Wednesday, a grand jury cleared four Omaha police officers involved in shootings over the past year. The grand jury found that Officer Alvin Lugod was justified in the Feb. 23 shooting of Danny Elrod, 39, who was struck in the back twice.
As the grand jury issued its decision in the Lugod case, Schmaderer fielded questions from community members concerned about gun and gang violence in the city.
He dropped into a Wednesday meeting held by the Empowerment Network’s Omaha 360, a north Omaha organization working to end violence, to share his perspective on national and local policing issues and to provide statistics on the department’s declining use of lethal force.
The conversation quickly turned to the city’s most recent officer-involved shooting. Schmaderer assured the group that he would objectively decide whether the officer should be punished based on evidence from an internal investigation.
“I am not hiding behind the fact that there is a tense (internal investigation) going on right now,” he said. “Clearly it is a big investigation.”
Speaking generally, Schmaderer said he wouldn’t allow an officer to get away with racist behavior and isn’t afraid to punish or fire officers who don’t follow proper policing.
During internal investigations, he said, he reaches a conclusion based on where the evidence takes him, regardless of who may like or dislike the decision.
When some of the more high-profile internal investigations of officer-involved shootings are completed, he said, “I will be as transparent as I can with the community as to what my outcome was.”
Schmaderer presented to the group the department’s use-of-force numbers and focused on the incidents in which Omaha police officers have shot a person. Since 2011, officers have shot 19 people. Last year, four people were shot by officers. This year, Omaha police officers have shot and killed two white individuals, Elrod and Tiffany D. Terry, 39. A grand jury has yet to review Terry’s case. She was shot outside her home in January after she threw a knife at officers.
The Rev. Portia Cavitt, who attended the Empowerment Network’s meeting, said it is important to hear where the police chief stands on national and local use-of-force cases.
“The fact that the chief attends the 360 meeting shows a lot about what it means to be transparent and open,” she said. “To hear we have a concerned police chief means we are on top to make sure we don’t become Ferguson.”
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