Omaha City Councilman Garry Gernandt said Sunday that someone who knows what it’s like to walk “on the dark side” is needed for the newly created position of gang intervention specialist in South Omaha.
“There’s a disconnect between what law enforcement is doing and what the community in South Omaha expects,” Gernandt said. “I think (the job) needs a set of eyes that have had experience on the dark side.”
Officer Michael Pecha, an Omaha police spokesman, said the department is seeking a bilingual civilian to gather information about gangs in South Omaha and use that knowledge constructively.
“We are looking for someone with ties to South Omaha and to the gang lifestyle,” Pecha said. “Our goal is to identify youth that may be starting to head in the wrong direction and provide guidance to them, to hopefully keep them out of gangs, and out of trouble.”
It’s a tactic that has paid dividends in north Omaha, where former gang member Chevist Johnson, 34, was hired in 2011 as a gang intervention specialist, Pecha said.
Chevist, a civilian who is paid through a grant from the Nebraska Office of Violence Prevention, was awarded the Omaha Police Department’s ribbon of excellence last week for his accomplishments.
A grant also will fund the intervention specialist’s position in South Omaha.
Johnson said he belonged to Omaha’s Jaynes Street Bloods before giving his life to Christ about 12 years ago.
Whoever is hired in the new position doesn’t have to be a former gang member, but the person does need to be “a stakeholder” in the community, he said.
“The position is more of a collaboration with the organizations working with young people as well as those getting out of jail,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, down the line, they’ll be able to hire more gang specialists.”
Pecha said Johnson “does an incredible job” as a liaison to the community — so much so that the police force hopes to duplicate his success.
“Having a gang intervention specialist shows that police are not just looking to put people in jail,” Pecha said. “We would rather get to at-risk youth early on, in order to prevent them from ending up in jail in the first place.”
Gernandt, a former police officer, said hiring a gang intervention specialist for South Omaha is an important step. The south side of the city may not have seen the amount of violence as the north side has seen, he said, but the planned hiring is a proactive move.
“I think that we have been in a valley for a while now, but the pendulum can swing back. We’ve been trying to get (an intervention specialist) for years, so it’s long overdue.”