A print version of this story originally ran in The Omaha Star
By Dr. Dennis Hoffman, UNO School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and Dr. Pete Simi, Department of Sociology, Chapman University
Back in 2012 the city of Omaha commissioned a report from us to conduct a comprehensive gang assessment. As part of our study, we learned that addressing Omaha gangs required addressing the “Omaha police problem.” Law enforcement officials and the Mayor’s Office hated our report. According to city officials, the report was “inaccurate, biased, and incomplete.”
People on the margins loved it. While the Omaha World Herald did a hatchet job on our clarion call for changes that would result in a more racially just Omaha, former Omaha Star publisher Dr. Marguerita Washington published UNO Black Studies professor Terri Crawford’s defense of our report. At the same time that some mainstream defenders of the status quo in Omaha discredited and undermined our report, the Malcolm X Center hosted a packed-house public forum on our report.
In the end, the powers that be won. The report was relegated to an already large heap of inconvenient truth. The report was suppressed.
One defender of the report paid us the highest compliment. North Omaha civil rights activist Willie Hamilton was quoted by The Reader as saying: “It took two white professors to basically tell our story.” The truth we told to power in our report was made possible only because of the anonymous African American and Latino grassroots community leaders and youth who served as sources. Because we think our report is relevant to the current crusade to root out racism in Omaha, we hereby resurrect a key recommendation from our dead report: Reinstate the Public Safety Auditor to Police the Police.
Once upon a time, a Public Safety Auditor existed in Omaha. The City Council established the Public Safety Auditor’s office in 2000 to address residents’ belief that their complaints were not being heard. Ms. Tristan Bonn served in that role from 2001 to 2006. The City of Omaha terminated her in in 2006 after she published a report criticizing the Omaha Police Department (OPD) for its handling of police traffic stops. When Bonn was fired, she told the press, “They can’t fire me for telling the truth.”
But the city did and got away with it. This left Omaha citizens in the lurch. They had no way to police the police.
To make matters worse, in 2017, President Trump’s former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions stripped away federal oversight of non-federal law enforcement agencies. This had been the only tool that the federal government had to force change in troubled police departments. Sessions’ action put the final nail in the coffin of any kind of oversight for the Omaha Police Department.
As cities like Minneapolis and even the U.S. Congress contemplate radical reforms to policing such as “defunding the police” and “dismantling police departments,” it is long overdue that Omaha, at a minimum, reinstitute the position of Public Safety Auditor. Citizen oversight of policing is a cornerstone of American democracy. The city’s determined effort to restrict such access and supervision is backwards and shameful.
If Omaha brings back the position of Public Safety Auditor, this position needs to be more than a paper tiger. There should be real authority, such as subpoena power, and provision of sufficient resources to conduct investigations and perform cost-benefit evaluations of police policies and practices.
Certainly, there are many more anti-racist policies and practices that could be adopted in Omaha and statewide in Nebraska. From a criminal justice standpoint, some of these other anti-racist policies include things like ending over-policing (i.e. stop the drug war), dismantling mass incarceration by doing things like removing cash bail, abolishing the death penalty and ending felon disenfranchisement.
We salute the efforts of social justice warrior Sen. Ernest Chambers who has committed his life to fighting for antiracist public policies like these. We are hopeful for change in our broken and racist criminal justice system. What gives us hope is that we see a new generation of bold and gifted young leaders stepping into Chambers’ big shoes and that, at least in this shining moment, these young leaders have the typhoon-like wind of a powerful multicultural movement at their backs.
Dr. Hoffman’s contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-510-9179….Also, it’s okay to text or call me at that number.