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Moving Forward: Omaha police chief talks about state of local policing

Posted at 5:32 PM, May 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-14 11:06:03-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said the city plans to ask the Nebraska Legislature to change state law to make plain when police should release body camera footage.

He also said he would embrace calls for more outside oversight of law enforcement agencies if lawmakers are willing to create a statewide police oversight board.

Schmaderer discussed the state of local policing after a year of protests and calls for change during an interview last week with 3 News Now Investigators. The full interview is at the bottom of this page.

Body cameras

The chief angered some by delaying the release of body camera footage from his officer’s shooting of Kenneth Jones until after a grand jury had weighed in.

Jones’ family members and local Black Lives Matter activists pressed Mayor Jean Stothert and Schmaderer to release the footage shortly after the November shooting.

Shan’e Perkins, Jones’ sister who served as a family spokeswoman, has said that the police department’s decision to wait caused the family unnecessary pain.

The grand jury in March cleared both Omaha officers in Jones’ death. The video was released after the decision. It showed a tense traffic stop, Jones’ shooting and officers finding a gun.

Schmaderer’s explanation hinged on concerns that he might have to release body cam footage from all ongoing investigations if he did so for Jones and other officer-involved shootings.

The chief said he worried about contaminating the grand jury pool. ACLU Nebraska has argued that other states’ experiences show there is little risk of contamination by video release.

Many police departments release body cam video footage shortly after officer-involved shootings and uses of force. Schmaderer said he sees the value of waiting.

“There’s nothing in state law that says I can’t release the video,” he said. “But … our videos are not considered public documents. It's considered an investigative report.”

Local protesters and political organizers, including one of last year’s protest leaders, Bear Alexander, said there was no need to wait if police had nothing to hide.

"They need to release it ASAP,” he said. “We cannot take their word for what happened. They're claiming transparency? Be transparent and show us the video footage."

Schmaderer said he has been working with Stothert and the City Attorney’s Office to figure out how Nebraska law could change to clarify when body cam footage should be released.

Today, the law is ambiguous about when the footage must be released. His goal would be to make state law mirror his preference, waiting for grand jury decisions to be made.

“I am a believer that we need to codify this in state law as to when that video can be released,” Schmaderer said. “Let’s be clear about it.”

Mental health

Schmaderer also discussed progress his department has made in recent years in how it responds to 911 calls for people in mental health crisis. He said it’s saving lives.

The department now dispatches mental health professionals and trained crisis officers to 911 calls authorities suspect might be related to mental health episodes.

Omaha does not yet, as other cities do, divert mental health calls from reaching an officer. Stothert has said she doesn’t want to put mental health responders in harm’s way.

The chief said Omaha had a head start on many other urban departments in large part because of mistakes it made with Zachary Bearheels, who died in 2017 after being beaten by police.

He said people no longer expect officers to handle mental health calls without expert help. Officers have had more specialized training in how to spot people in crisis.

And local services in Omaha for people needing help with their mental health are far better, he said, “light years better than what we had in that incident.”

“Since then, we have internally made a number of changes, but the broader community of Omaha has stepped up,” he said.

Building trust

Schmaderer said the Omaha Police Department faced two key problems when he took over in 2012 – shootings were too high, and people who needed help from police didn’t trust them.

He’s about to start his ninth year as chief – a tenure more than twice as long as typical for urban police chief – and he said he wants to serve five more years.

Both issues were related, he said. And both made solving homicides harder. His officers worked hard to build and improve on relationships with people citywide.

“If you see a city that's got a very low homicide clearance rate, that’s a city that’s going to have a low level of police-community relations,” he said.

Officers worked with neighborhood leaders, civic groups and kids, including coaching youth sports for kids in the Police Athletics and Community Engagement program.

Over time, investigators saw the difference, as local homicide clearance rates climbed from a low of 30 percent in 2010 to a high of 91 percent in 2018. Most cities of similar size solve less.

“If you can’t solve … the greatest affront to a society, which is a homicide, what confidence would anybody have as a community that you could solve anything else?” he asked.

Summer protests

Last year’s death in Minnesota of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer Derek Chauvin, now convicted of murder, changed the conversation on policing nationally.

Schmaderer spoke out publicly on what he saw in the video. He said the department changed its training to keep suspects safer than what he saw, so they can breathe.

“We were affected by what took place as well,” he said. “I mean who couldn’t be, right?”

Protests came to Omaha, too, fueled by people not just angry about what happened elsewhere, but also sharing personal stories about what had happened to them with police.

Schmaderer said his department heard their concerns and is trying to respond.

“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 that,” he said.

That’s part of why he and Stothert said she created a citizen complaint review committee. Critics have said the group lack the power to hold police accountable.

Schmaderer said they have the power to hold him accountable for his actions, and that he has the subpoena power to make sure internal affairs investigations are thorough and fair.

Local protests about police violence challenged his officers, Schmaderer said. Not all of them passed the test. He fired one who lashed out at a protester with a pepper ball gun.

Some protesters shared video on social media showing other officers using force in questionable ways. Schmaderer said last summer’s protests taught his officers a lot.

Police training is already incorporating some of what the officers learned, including how to handle traffic stops in ways that acknowledge the experience is different for some.

“We need to be cognizant if the driver is African-American that they’re going to be a little more fearful of this encounter,” Schmaderer said. “That officer should take a little extra time to put that driver at ease when the situation allows.”

Internal affairs complaints about officer actions are down from a recent high of 130 in 2011 to 45 in 2019 and 47 in 2020, police department statistics show.

Learn more: Stothert and Neary face calls for change. The future of policing in Omaha.

The way forward

Schmaderer said he welcomes the post-protest push for increased public accountability and oversight, including parts of several proposals the Legislature is discussing now.

However, he said, changes need to be balanced.

Said Schmaderer: “We can’t go so far where half my staff retires or leaves. We can’t go so far where I can’t reduce crime. It has to be done within those realms. And it can be.”

See the full interview below.

Moving Forward Web Extra: A candid conversation with the OPD chief

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