Sometimes tragedies can spur progress. For the Omaha area, Zachary BearHeels’ legacy must be a sustained effort to address our area’s mental health needs.
BearHeels died in June 2017 in a struggle with Omaha police officers in which he was shocked a dozen times with a Taser. Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer fired the four officers involved.
This week came word that arbitrators have reinstated three of the officers and upheld the termination of the fourth. The Omaha Police Department and the Omaha Police Officers’ Association both agreed to respect the outcome and focus on moving forward.
Neither the arbitrators’ 125-page opinion nor the evidence and arguments at their hearing were released. Such information is made public in some cases if one of the parties involved gives the go-ahead. The lack of transparency for such a high-profile case ill serves the public, and the City of Omaha should push for the material to be open.
The announcement does provide a moment, however, for the Omaha area to note positive actions taken since 2017:
» Officer training and support. BearHeels, an Native American man from Oklahoma, struggled with mental health. The Omaha Police Department has stepped up training significantly for officers on how to deal with mentally ill individuals. The department also began placing a trained mental health therapist at Omaha police precincts to better aid officers and the public.
» Cultural awareness. Schmaderer implemented a session on Native American cultural awareness for all officers. One of the officers during the 2017 incident dragged BearHeels by his ponytail, an action of particular insult to Native Americans.
» Sarpy initiative. Sarpy County officials deserve credit for energetically pursuing plans for a freestanding mental health crisis center to relieve the pressure on local law enforcement. That effort ran into difficulty, but Sarpy officials and Nebraska Medicine have agreed to explore the creation of a mental health crisis center at the Bellevue Medical Center, an eminently worthy goal. An average of 34% of inmates at the Douglas County Jail have acute-level mental illness, one study found. The figure for Sarpy County Jail: an average of 28%.
» Facilities registry. Nebraska is participating in a 23-state project, funded by federal grants, to create a centralized registry that shows the current status of local hospitals and facilities with inpatient psychiatric beds.
A range of nonprofit organizations in Omaha and Nebraska do fine work in helping meet mental health needs, but the needs still exceed current resources. In the wake of this tragedy, let’s rededicate our community to provide the supports necessary to help these vulnerable individuals.