OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — The question many protesters asked Omaha policymakers last summer: Why should the public trust that police departments can police bad behavior in their own ranks?
Video from the 2020 protests shows some officers made decisions that put Omaha protesters at risk. Our crews captured protesters being struck and others being surprised by crowd-control munitions, including pepper balls.
Cameras also saw protesters tossing plastic water bottles at officers and some letting the air out of police cruisers’ tires.
Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer responded to criticisms by releasing parts of his internal report on how the Omaha Police Department handled the protests. 3 News Now Investigators took a second look at his findings.
Schmaderer’s review of police actions found that officers followed department procedures 120 of the 123 times police used force during the protests. The report says OPD fired one officer for firing a pepper ball at a protester’s groin.
Other questionable acts were referred to internal affairs officers or addressed by police supervisors. No police officers were prosecuted. Some protesters were.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said the report offered “opportunities and actions to improve police response to events...to ensure constitutional rights of free speech and create safe environments for officers and our citizens.”
Schmaderer said his department is better prepared to handle protests because of 2020. He said they now know they need to warn more people in protest crowds before firing pepper balls or moving in to make arrests.
“I think the glaring thing is we really learned that what happened somewhere else can often carry over here…We were affected by what took place as well. I mean who couldn’t be, right?”
The chief said some of the difficult conversations protest leaders had with police officers and other political leaders gave police chiefs around the country the room to make improvements that might have been resisted in other years.
Local activist, Ja Keen Fox said people of color in Omaha don’t feel like much progress was made. Many still fear for their lives when stopped by police, he said. People living in North Omaha still have too much contact with police, he added.
People filed 47 formal complaints about the actions of Omaha police officers in 2020. That number was up two from the 2019 total but down from a recent high of 130 in 2011.
“The progress I think is disingenuous,” he said. “We see a lot of resolutions. We see a lot of policy initiatives that don’t really change the experiences that Black and brown people are having with police.”
Fox is part of a group of local political activists pushing to shift some city funds from law enforcement agencies to social services meant to address crime’s root causes.
“We want the police presence to look like it does in Millard and West Omaha, which is almost non-existent,” Fox said. “That’s the real progress that we’re looking for.”
Sgt. Tony Conner, president of the Omaha Police Officers Association, has argued against what he and others call “defunding the police.” He says most people in North Omaha want them there.
But Schmaderer acknowledges the need for more services.
“You have educational gaps,” the chief said. “You have poverty gaps...The police department cannot be tasked solely with those three things. It isn’t completely our mission.”
The department has changed some of its approaches to protests, based in part on the settlement of a lawsuit with the ACLU of Nebraska after a series of mass arrests involving protests.
The settlement requires annual reports over the next two years on how often and why officers use chemical agents like pepperball guns. The chief’s protest report says those chemical munitions were used more than 100 times during protests.
“We want to be guardians for the community,” Schmaderer said. “So if our community is telling us they’re having an experience that needs to be changed, then we need to look at how we go about changing it.”
The settlement also led to a change in city code language on obstructing a roadway. People who are participating in protected speech, but otherwise would be violating code, must be given clear warnings and a chance to comply in order to be found guilty.
Fox and others said they’ll believe it when they see it.
“We have to tell the truth about the experiences that we’re having and we have to look through the lenses of people that we don’t normally see,” he said. “North Omaha is having a completely different experience with police than any other part of the city. We have to be adults about perspective.”
OPD's analysis is available here. It is partially redacted.