Americans have turned their attention this month to a vital national question: How can our society provide justice?
Justice, that is, for all Americans — including, most importantly, people of color traditionally vulnerable to abuse by law enforcement.
Police have important duties to serve and protect. Officers are routinely placed in challenging circumstances, and almost always act responsibly. But the exceptions can be horrific. In the present day and historically, abusive actions by individual officers have taken a terrible toll on individuals and communities.
The killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer has triggered an earthquake of national debate over needed change for police operations. Cities have begun to respond, as they should. Justice demands this action.
In Omaha, the Police Department has improved its community relations over the past decade. The department has doubled its sworn black officers in seven years, now accounting for 10% of the force. It has gone from 11 police shootings 10 years ago to one last year to none so far this year.
At the same time, testifiers at a recent hearing by Nebraska state lawmakers offered multiple criticisms of Omaha police.
Last week, Mayor Jean Stothert and Chief Todd Schmaderer announced a set of changes for the Police Department in the wake of this national discussion. Their action shows that Omaha leaders have been listening to the public, studying recent police actions here and elsewhere, and weighing what changes can best promote professionalism, accountability and public trust.
Although the department did not train officers to use a knee-to-the-neck restraint, the department will now explicitly ban such a practice. That’s certainly appropriate, given its infamous use by a Minneapolis officer, resulting in Floyd’s death.
In another response to the Minneapolis situation, Omaha officers will be required to “intervene and report” when a fellow officer steps outside proper bounds in his or her actions. The change is absolutely needed to promote a police culture that deters officers from irresponsible action.
Next month, all Omaha officers will receive new mandatory training covering a variety of issues: Taser recertification. “Suicide by cop” training. A review of the Floyd case. The impact of biased policing. Changes to the use of force policy.
Positive, too, is Schmaderer’s statement that his department is conducting a review of recent Black Lives Matter protests in Omaha and the police response to them, at Stothert’s request. The more that the Police Department understands the factors behind what went right and what went wrong at recent protests, the better in planning responsibly for the future. And the release of the findings can build trust with the public.
The announcement that the city will revitalize a Citizens Review Board is an especially welcome step. Citizens can file complaints against officers directly to the board, instead of with the department’s internal affairs division. That promotes accountability, builds public trust and provides a deterrent to future reckless action by officers.
“A citizen-led board provides an independent review of complaints against officers,” Stothert said. “We agree with suggestions that the results should be more transparent, so we will make the changes we can, without compromising confidential personnel details.”
Through these changes, Omaha has an important opportunity to build on current progress and learn from recent situations here and elsewhere. It can set proactive measures in place to better prevent irresponsible police action and nurture improved relations with the public.
In so doing, Omaha can take needed steps toward the important goal at the center of national discussion: justice for all.