Returning to her northwest Omaha apartment on June 1 with her 11-month-old baby, a 37-year-old woman was confronted by a group of armed teens.
The youths threatened her and demanded the keys to her 2002 Toyota Prius. Clutching her baby, she complied. The youths drove off.
Omaha police officers who responded to the theft near 108th and Fort Streets tracked the car and found two kids hiding under a nearby deck. They later arrested a third teen and recovered a realistic-looking fake gun.
Officers took the youths to the Douglas County Youth Center, and, according to the Omaha Police Officers Association, the youths were released within hours.
In the past week, the police union has highlighted that case and other recent carjackings after which, they contend, violent youths have been released prematurely. Those releases, they say, threaten the safety of officers and the public.
The union is raising these issues as city and county officials consider building a juvenile justice center downtown. The union thinks the center should have a larger capacity than the proposed 64 beds, which is 32 fewer than what the existing center can hold. Leaders say more beds are necessary to detain the juveniles accused of the most violent crimes and keep the public safe.
Juvenile justice reform advocates say the number of detained youths has declined by more than half over the past 10 years. They also say plans for more programming will provide better interventions and outcomes for kids.
Juveniles who face violent felony charges should be detained until a judge in a detention hearing determines the best placement for them, said Anthony Conner, the police union’s president. The juveniles shouldn’t be released before officers even finish reports, which the union says has happened in some cases.
“Officers feel like hamsters on a hamster wheel. They’re running and not getting anywhere,” Conner said. “They’re arresting the same juveniles that (detention officials) just let out two days before.”
There’s no indication that the juvenile offenders in the June 1 incident have since been accused of new crimes, though union officials said that has happened in other cases.
The union made its concerns public ahead of the Omaha City Council vote, which is set for Tuesday, on a proposal to issue $114 million in bonds to build a courthouse annex and juvenile justice center at 17th and Harney Streets.
More than 40 people testified at a Tuesday council meeting about the Douglas County project.
The current juvenile detention center, the Douglas County Youth Center, is near 42nd Street and Poppleton Avenue and can hold 96 people. As of Friday, 75 youths were housed there.
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The County Board and the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission have voted for the project, which would be paid for mostly with bonds issued by the commission and repaid by Douglas County property taxpayers. City Council approval is required to borrow the money.
In Conner’s remarks to the council Tuesday, he said juvenile probation is releasing kids to “artificially deflate” the number of youths held at the youth center so officials can justify the lower number of beds in the proposed center. He asked council members to vote no on the proposal, solely on the space issue.
“Reducing detention by limiting the ability to detain appears to be the goal. We think that’s risky,” he said during the public hearing. “If we need 100 beds, or even 150 beds, to keep challenged youth safe, the public safe and to provide them with enhanced rehabilitation, then that’s a good thing and that’s what we need.”
Douglas County Board Chairman Chris Rodgers, speaking at the end of the public hearing, disputed Conner’s claims. Rodgers said that in recent weeks, 16 youths have been arrested in connection with carjackings, and 13 were detained. Three, he said, were placed on a home GPS-monitoring program.
“In all due respect to the police, their job, the hardness of it, they are not experts in juvenile justice,” Rodgers said. “They’re conflating and putting a fear factor in regards to this issue that happened with the carjackings.”
Juvenile justice reform advocates said that such alternatives as GPS monitors, placements in group homes or at-home programming are better alternatives to incarceration for juveniles who commit low-level offenses.
“Each day that a youth who doesn’t need to be confined in detention, it has a detrimental effect on their personal growth and social development,” said Thomas Warren, president and CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska and former Omaha police chief, who spoke in favor of the new justice center.
However, he and others acknowledge that detention is needed for violent juveniles.
“As a former police officer, I am well aware of the fact that we have violent youth offenders, and that is who the juvenile detention facility is designed for,” Warren said.
The police union said that in recent weeks, violent juveniles haven’t been detained properly. The smaller proposed center, the union says, will exacerbate the issue.
“My fear is that the juvenile detention center will have no choice but to release these violent offenders simply because they do not have the brick and mortar to house them,” said Dan Martin, who serves on the union’s executive board and is a sergeant in the Omaha Police Department’s gang unit.
Juvenile probation officers assess offending youths in an intake interview and use a standardized screening that looks at the youth’s risk of re-offending or failing to show up for court, said Mary Visek, the chief probation officer for juvenile probation in Omaha.
“Nebraska State Probation has a great relationship with the Omaha Police Department, and we collaborate with them on a daily basis toward our mutual goals of community safety and youth rehabilitation,” Visek said in an email.
She and other officials in the juvenile probation office declined to respond directly to the police union’s claims or specific questions sent by a reporter and instead responded with general information about juvenile court proceedings.
Janet Bancroft, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Judicial Branch, which includes probation, denied that youths were being released for a political purpose.
“Probation is not intentionally releasing people to reduce the numbers for some political gain in terms of building a detention center,” Bancroft said.
Omaha Deputy Police Chief Ken Kanger said the Police Department works “tremendously well” with the probation office. He said representatives from both entities spoke after police officials raised concerns after the June 1 incident involving the release of the young carjacking suspects.
During the discussion, Kanger said, he decided that from now on, the Police Department will require that detectives speak to probation officers about juvenile crimes such as robberies that are being investigated by the detective bureau. Sometimes, he said, a patrol officer who takes a youth to the youth center won’t have all the context of a case.
Information from the detectives will assist probation officers in determining whether to keep the youth at the center, he said.
Kanger said police officials don’t think the probation office is releasing the youths early to skew the numbers, as the union alleges. Kanger also declined to specify a number of beds the Police Department would like to see in a new juvenile justice center.
“The bottom line is we want to make sure there’s programming in place for the youth and an adequate facility to hold the most dangerous youth,” he said. “With the city growing like it’s growing, we need the ability to detain individuals (to protect) public safety.”