OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Philando Castile.
Americans know more about their stories after a summer of protests and civil unrest. But what can be done to save lives closer to home, the next Zachary Bearheels or Kenneth Jones?
Omaha voters on Tuesday will pick their next mayor. Part of what voters are deciding is how they want their city to be policed.
Two-term incumbent Mayor Jean Stothert, a Republican, faces commercial realty executive RJ Neary. 3 News Now Investigators dug into the differences in their approaches to police reform.
Neary, who survived a close primary with candidates who made police reform a higher priority, adopted the approach of the candidate he narrowly defeated, Jasmine Harris.
He said he would like to see Omaha police step up their training and focus on de-escalating or calming the often-tense situations officers encounter during traffic stops and visits.
“You know the Kenneth Jones thing was traffic stop to death in 67 seconds,” he said. “That’s not de-escalation. ... Other people are innovating. They’re not just adding more officers.”
Neary and State Sen. Terrell McKinney of North Omaha said they want to see the city fill a police auditor position that has been left empty for years.
They say they’d also like to see the citizen complaint review board Mayor Stothert created by executive order given more independence and teeth, including the power to subpoena records.
McKinney said his constituents "want to know that when an officer does anything wrong that they’re going to be held accountable and it’s not going to be swept under the rug.”
Stothert said Omaha already has accountable police leadership, Police Chief Todd Schmaderer. This year, the police union endorsed her for the first time.
“The chief is the police auditor,” Stothert said. “You have to let the chief of police do his job. He has subpoena power. He has to review these cases. And I feel like we have to maintain what his authority is.”
Stothert said she’d like to give the citizen complaint review board “as much authority as we can.” But she does not support letting them subpoena people or suggest punishments for wayward officers.
“That’s the job of the chief of police,” she said.
Schmaderer’s outreach during his nearly nine-year tenure has received praise from community leaders often critical of police, including Nebraska’s first Black state senator, Ernie Chambers.
But even those who appreciate Schmaderer’s leadership say more could be done. Chambers, like McKinney, who succeeded him in the Legislature, has called for more public oversight.
Schmaderer said he welcomes suggestions and knows there’s work to be done. He cited progress building relationships with neighbors who now come forward as witnesses.
“We made a real concerted effort to improve police-community relations, garner partnerships, be present, continue to nurture those relationships,” he said.
He said he finds evidence of progress in a decline in shootings his police officers investigate. That number has fallen from nearly 250 nine years ago to around 100 in 2017-2019. Officer-involved shootings are also down from 11 in 2010 to 2 in 2020, based on police department data.
Stothert said most voters prefer her approach to public safety, including adding a fifth police precinct in Elkhorn and budgeting for up to 100 additional officers.
She cited progress against shootings, homicides and other major violent crimes, though she acknowledged an uptick in crime mirrored by other cities in 2020.
“I do not feel like the majority of the citizens have any issue with the police department or trust with our police department,” she said. “I think the relationships are very good and we strive to get even better.”
Neary praised progress by Omaha police, but said he wants the city to consider how other cities approach public safety, including diverting more people from encountering police at all.
“I saw a man passed out on the sidewalk,” he said. “I thought perfect, social services. I saw a police officer interviewing another person just hanging around a restaurant. And I thought there’s a better way to deliver that service than the police officers. There was no danger there.”
Stothert, a former nursing supervisor, said about 300 of the city’s 911 calls a month involve responses to mental health crises.
That’s a key reason she and Schmaderer said the Omaha Police Department created its mental health response unit that sends a licensed mental health professional with first responders on those calls.
Stothert said she would not want mental health professionals or social workers being dispatched to 911 calls without an officer. Neary said he would.
“I hear a lot of people say well let’s defund the police and we will have a lot of social workers and they will create programs and we won’t need as many police,” Stothert said. “That’s a great concept. But those programs gotta be in place and they’ve got to be proven to work before you could ever defund the police department.”
University of Nebraska at Omaha criminology and criminal justice professor Justin Nix has studied how police departments gain and hold legitimacy in the eyes of the public – and vice versa.
He said there are no easy answers on public safety when people have competing ideas.
“Acknowledging that the idea of legitimacy is a dialogue between multiple parties,” Nix said. “And sometimes the community has more than one idea about legitimacy.”
Nix, like both candidates, said one way to reduce the number of people killed interacting with police is to address how the justice system handles people facing mental health issues.
He said it could reduce 1,000 or so shooting deaths nationally during interactions with police a year by as many as 250. But he said people need to keep these numbers in perspective.
“A thousand deaths a year is a lot,” he said. “But it comes as a result of 63-some million interactions between officers and citizens. A death occurs in like 0.0002 percent of all police-citizen interactions.”
Nix said some departments are investing in de-escalation training spread over time that shows promise for reducing incidents between police and people they serve.
He and other experts say long-term investments in better housing, education and transportation could make lasting differences in public safety. But the debate needs to be realistic.
“We can’t close our eyes and cover our ears and pretend police don’t have no effect on crime,” he said. “We can debate about how much of an effect and if there are other, more promising ways to deal with crime.”
Police union leaders, including Sgt. Anthony Conner, have said efforts to take funds from police and divert them to other social services would increase crime.
The union this week sent mailers attacking City Council candidates they believe have called for “defunding the police,” a political catchphrase for using police funds for other services.
But Conner said people shouldn’t read their opposition to losing funds as resistance to change.
“I think it’s important that we’re at the table, so our rights aren’t trampled on whenever these proposals are made,” he said. “Sometimes you see our rights being trampled on by some of these proposals.”
Conner said union officers would embrace additional training, but said that when budgets get tight, training is often one of the first things departments cut.
He says he’d like to work with the Legislature or state Department of Education to help schoolchildren learn what to do when pulled over for a traffic stop.
“I have 42 years of life being a Black man, and I understand the struggle and some of the concerns. I try to explain with a fact-based discussion about what exactly happens when a police officer stops people."
A local group pressing the city to spend police funds on other services, Omaha Abolition Research, says addressing economic inequality would do more for public safety than spending on law enforcement.
Local advocates for change say they don’t care whether reform happens at City Hall or here, at Nebraska’s Capitol.
McKinney conveyed the urgency that he and many of his constituents feel. He said Omaha is one awful incident from sparking what Minneapolis faced after Floyd was killed.
He’s proposed Legislative Bill 515, the Municipal Police Oversight Bill, to strengthen the committee the mayor created and give it the powers she says she doesn’t want.
He’s also working to get an amendment passed that would give people who file a complaint against a police officer an easier way to see what came of their complaints.
“It hits home for me because throughout my whole life I’ve always had to deal with the police – whether it was them coming into my grandparents’ home to raid or my home or getting pulled over for no reason at all. … It hits home on a lot of levels,” McKinney said.
Schmaderer said he’d work with anyone, as long as the approach is balanced.
“You really need to settle on some things in the middle that don’t have unintended consequences,” he said. “I do think oversight of police is something that needs to spread. I do think there’s some space for a database for problem officers that can be known to the public.”