OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Nearly a year ago, people took to the streets demanding change after the death of George Floyd. Protests broke out nationwide, including across Nebraska.
Omaha saw days of continuous protests amidst dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. At the forefront of the Omaha Police Department, sits Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer, who’s been chief since 2012.
After last summer’s protests, many called for change with OPD, including less force during protests. Chief Schmaderer sat down with 3 News Now Anchor Maya Saenz to discuss what’s changed since May 2020.
Schmaderer says before the protests, he felt police-community relations were good in Omaha.
“We had a number of successes leading up to, even before the protests with the reduction in violent crime, reduction in homicides, clearing homicides, all indicators of good police-community relations,” said Schmaderer.
He was pleased with how his 900-officer department dealt with the protests.
“I'm very proud of how the Omaha Police Department stepped up to ensure First Amendment rights were adhered to and to protect the City when it got to the point when there was some unrest."
But he says even his department has things to learn.
“We heard very loudly. Especially the very peaceful protests that we had in North Omaha. We really heard those voices quite a bit,” he said. “Though we may feel we've made some progress, is that really resonating and is that being measured by the community as progress."
Schmaderer said the department utilized the moment to improve some of their policies in efforts to minimize any deaths that occur with police intervention. Immediately after the civil unrest, the department implemented several internal policies.
“That included the duty to intervene if the officer is doing something wrong, you must now intervene. We always taught it but it's now officially a policy. We went ahead and officially banned chokeholds. It wasn't something we taught, but we wanted to outright ban it. Also, we banned any neck pins with the knee in response to the Derek Chauvin incident in Minneapolis.”
In October 2020, the Safety Review Board recommended the department implement some new improvements including giving verbal commands prior to pepper ball deployment, documenting reports, for officers to wear large name-tags or serial numbers on their helmets and uniforms to help identify officers, and more professionalism while handling the arrests of agitators.
Schmaderer said all those recommendations have been inclement.
To do that, the department had to go through hundreds of hours of protest footage to study what went right and what went wrong.
“Because it was such a new event, such a large-scale event that had a great impact on the community, we wanted to study it. We wanted to study and learn what we did right, wrong, what we can improve upon, and what we will avoid in the future, and in the aftermath of that which took us months and months, we had over a thousand hours of videos because every protest and every event that took place, we had video of. So we had to go through all of that, and at the end of that complete analysis, which was exhaustive and spanned months and months and months, we did find the need to implement those that you just mentioned, and we also adjusted some of our tactics because we’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work,” he said.
One of the flaws the department found was the inability of officers to communicate with such large crowds.
“Communication was a big issue with the protest event because up to that point in time, we did not have a piece of equipment that could penetrate blocks and blocks and blocks. We had loudspeakers on our cruisers, and on some of our tactical vehicles and in our handheld megaphones, and up to this point in Omaha’s history in the last 25-30 years, forty years even, that was enough for us. That would work on every scenario, and we found that at 72nd and Dodge, when you had 4,000 people there, those in the back couldn’t hear what we wanted them to.
They didn’t know what the progression of events were because we didn’t have a loudspeaker big enough to reach them. So that was a great concern to me, it really was, because there was a lot of misunderstanding associated with that for good reason, they couldn’t hear. So, we did purchase a very top-of-the-line speaker if you will, so that next time, if we’re ever faced in that ever again, we’ll be able to talk to everybody for blocks.”
Some people who were arrested during the protests were also able to complete a restorative justice program that would allow them to avoid criminal convictions for protest-related offenses. Chief Schmaderer says he’s working to grow that program.
“Every arrest that we make does not have to end in a jail sentence. There’s a remedy and a mediation in place that can reduce that offense off that person’s record which is good for them,” said Schmaderer. “The initial event that we did was related to the arrests we made during the protests series of weeks, but we had been looking at implementing that even before that, and what we saw were some successes from that so what we decided to do was to do an eight-month pilot - we’ve got it up and running now, and we have it vetted and studied by the University of Nebraska Omaha professors so, at the end of this period of time, we can adjust it, modify it, increase it, decrease it, so that the restorative justice program actually suits Omaha.”
Schmaderer says the past year was also tough on his officers and department culture.
“Officers are people too, and it was very hard on police officers in Omaha. I’ll speak for Omaha because I know the Omaha officers. It was hard on them in the aftermath of the Minneapolis incident because we had thought that was wrong and we knew it was wrong, we thought it was a crime from the start. We thought it was deplorable.” he added.
In the past year, the Omaha Police Department has seen an increase in officers retiring early or leaving law enforcement altogether.
“It was tough for the officers when the intrinsic value that they have in this job was taken from them. So that’s taken a toll on them plus they have families and are in a pandemic just like everybody else is. So, we’ve really increased our peer support and any counseling that we can provide on that front, and we’ve increased it tremendously.”
As the hope for the pandemic to end grows, Schmaderer recognizes there’s still a need for Omaha to move forward and vows to continue leading his department in that direction.
“We've got a great team. I've got super officers and we've got super partners in this community.
The Omaha Police Department - we're not perfect. But we try to be as honest as possible, and we try to do the right thing for this community."