West Omaha will become home to the city’s fifth police precinct by late 2019, city officials announced Tuesday.
With public safety heating up as a topic in the mayor’s race, city leaders including Mayor Jean Stothert and Police Chief Todd Schmaderer held a press conference to lay out plans for a western precinct, based at 20924 Cumberland Drive in Elkhorn. They also described a staffing plan that would bring the city to 900 officers, or roughly two for every 1,000 residents, by 2019.
Omaha has long divided its four precincts at the intersection of 42nd and Dodge Streets. The current northwest and southwest districts stretch from midtown to Elkhorn, creating precincts that cover a huge area. The current southwest precinct is more than double the size of the northeast precinct.
The new plan calls for the northeast and southeast precincts to stay the same. The northwest and southwest precincts would become simply the north and south precincts, whose western boundary is roughly Interstate 680. Then the new west precinct would encompass the area to the west, including Elkhorn.
Stothert is up for re-election this year. Both the mayor and her opponent, former State Sen. Heath Mello, have said the city needs a fifth police precinct in the next four years. Mello said earlier this year that he wants it done by 2019.
On Tuesday, he said in a statement that the fifth precinct is “long overdue.” He also said he would also consider a new agreement with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office to better work together in western Omaha. He did not offer specifics.
Stothert said a committee of police officials has been studying a fifth precinct since 2016. And it’s been a topic of discussion in the city for decades.
Recommendations for an additional western precinct showed up after Elkhorn was annexed in 2007, and again over the years in budget planning, as well as in a 2012 study of city facilities.
The City Council will be asked to approve some aspects of the plan, including the purchase agreement for the land.
Two council members who represent the western portion of the city praised the plan.
Rich Pahls, who represents southwest Omaha, said he likes that the new precinct is located in Elkhorn.
“I think that’s a positive move, reassure people out there we haven’t forgotten them,” he said.
Franklin Thompson, who represents Elkhorn and other western areas, said he’s been hearing about the issue of response times since 2005.
“This is important to neighborhoods like Elkhorn, Harvey Oaks, Fire Ridge,” Thompson said. “People from those areas would be very happy with the addition.”
Carl Anderson, the head of the Elkhorn merchants’ association, said he thinks his friends and neighbors will be pleased about the addition.
“It could be nothing but good for us, as far as we’re concerned,” he said.
He said he has no complaints about Omaha police, although he said officers are less visible in downtown Elkhorn than were the former Elkhorn Police Department.
In the past four years, Stothert and the City Council have beefed up the sworn strength of the police department, bringing it from about 800 to 860.
To staff the new precinct, Schmaderer said the city would need to increase the department’s full sworn strength from 860 this year to 880 in 2018 and 900 in 2019. That will put the department at about two officers per 1,000 residents, which Schmaderer describes as the “gold standard” of staffing.
On Tuesday, police officials said the new precinct, and the new officers, should improve response times in the western portion of the city. And, Schmaderer said, more visible police means that property crime would likely decrease.
Officers generally work in districts within the precinct. But they can be called to another district — or even another precinct — if closer officers are responding to other calls.
The department has enough officers to staff each district. But with vacations, sick leave and training, there often isn’t an officer in every district.
Capt. Adam Kyle, who manages police facilities, said with 900 officers, the department will be able to staff each district, even with absences. And Kyle said that likely means that officers will be closer to calls when they come in and response times will go down.
Having an officer arrive at crimes sooner, especially property crimes, means that police are more likely to catch a suspect, Kyle said.
Schmaderer said the city should break ground on the new precinct’s headquarters next year and it would be open by late 2019.
Its construction is expected to cost about $8 million, as well as $1 million for land acquisition and another $1 million for startup costs.
The new precinct will be located on a 4-acre site currently owned by the Elkhorn Public Schools Foundation, Stothert said. She said the foundation and the city signed a letter of intent to transfer the property Monday night. She anticipates closing on the property by October, she said.
Stothert said the site is large enough to accommodate future expansion.
The new boundaries were determined partly by the number of calls officers receive, Schmaderer said, but the city also left room for growth. The new precinct’s area receives fewer calls for service than the other four, though that’s expected to change as the city continues to grow through annexation and development.