In press conferences following protests for the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and the killing of James Scurlock in downtown Omaha, city officials pined for an end to civil unrest as they instituted curfews and crowd controls.
“I know every citizen in Omaha would like to see us get back to normal…but like I said this is going to take some extraordinary measures,” Mayor Jean Stothert said on May 31.
But black citizens have said loud and clear that they can’t step backward to systems that overrepresent them in policing statistics and don’t provide enough resources in health, housing and education.
“We’re tired,” said Tamika Mease at an Omaha City Council meeting on June 2. “We’re tired and we’re frustrated, and we are demanding change. We’re willing to work together. Be willing to work with us. But change has to come.”
In 2019, if you were white and pulled over by an officer of the Omaha Police Department, your encounter most likely ended with a ticket. If you were black, you probably got arrested.
Data from the Nebraska Crime Commission shows despite city officials saying they’ve made significant progress in connecting with communities of color in the last eight years, harsh disparities still exist from who gets arrested and searched to who gets tickets and warnings. And while those harsher punishments have fallen in the last few years, they’re still above where they were a decade ago.
Justin Nix, a University of Nebraska-Omaha associate professor of criminology and criminal justice said these statistics alone can’t show bias, though. The aggregate numbers don’t show the nature of the stops, whether more arrests occurred because the driver had an obligation due to an outstanding warrant and what the population of people driving in Omaha looked like that day.
However a study of 95 million stops by 21 state and 35 municipal agencies found that “police stops and search decisions suffer from persistent racial bias.” Another study found minority groups are 30% more likely to get arrested than their white counterparts.
It’s a problem once again highlighted by police brutality, this time caught on video in the death of Floyd.
“It is just one interaction, but it’s a symptom of a broader issue,” Nix said, “a systemic issue that, for that one incident caught on film, there are so many incidents that don’t result in the death of a person but that leave people of color feeling they were treated unfairly.”
Almost all Omaha Police Department stops start for the same reason—traffic code violations.
However, the 10,379 times the Omaha Police Department pulled over black people makes up 24% of all traffic stops in 2019, double their share of the city’s population. The situations also escalated once officers made contact with people in the car. Last year, black people received a quarter of the tickets, a third of the written warnings and about half of the verbal warnings that white people received. Instead they made up nearly 44% of arrests and 42% of searches, both higher than any other demographic.
A public information officer with the Omaha Police Department said no was available to talk about these issues and referred to the traffic stop statistics.
Those disparities have narrowed in the last few years, but in total they’re still higher than they were a decade ago.
From the mid-2000s to the early teens, white people, who make up 77% of the city’s population, represented more equitable shares of those traffic stop outcomes. From 2008 to 2011, rates of arrests among white people increased while those among black people decreased sharply. At the lowest point in 2010, black people made up about 21% of stops and 29% of arrests while white people constituted while white people constituted 64% of stops and half of arrests. Black people were still overrepresented, but the trends showed progress.
Then the numbers started to ascend. In the mid-teens, they hit a peak. In 2016, black people made up more than half the city’s traffic stops and were arrested 1.6 times more than white people.
Nix said despite the numbers, OPD does make serious efforts to connect with the community that are on par with what he’s seen nationwide. The police force now has body worn cameras. They participate in Operation N.E.T.S. to hand out basketballs and footballs and play pickup games. They sign up and transport low-income kids to and from organized sports through the P.A.C.E. program.
But studies show body cams have little to no effect on reducing police brutality or racial bias, and Nix said while it feels good to connect with kids in a positive way, it’s hard to say what effect those connections will have.
“In terms of long term effects, who knows if you play basketball with a kid for a summer, when he’s 18 is he going to stay out of situations that end getting him involved in crime?” Nix said. “Those kinds of things are really difficult to assess.”
Nix said he prickles at the phrase “defund the police.” To take away funding from law enforcement and funnel it into education and social services makes sense in theory, but change from those institutions takes time. It also takes the word of few over the need of entire neighborhoods.
Nix points at Baltimore and the fallout after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 as an example of what happens when police step back. Many community members actually wanted more police presence in their neighborhoods. They just wanted it be fair as well. After Gray died police officers stopped intervening as much, crime increased turning the city into the United States per capita murder capitol.
But that also doesn’t have to happen, Nix said. Changes can be made to policing, one of which is not sending officers to ever drug overdose or mental health crisis, and investments can be made in community resources to address the roots of poverty.
To make it effective, the city needs to get the right community input and spend a lot of time studying the consequences of these decisions. And if there were a time to accomplish that, Nix said, it’s now.
He’s fielding calls daily from across the world with reporters asking him, “How did we get here?” “What should we do?” Nix said it’s going to take the community and government officials working together to find out what solution fits them best. But that’s going to need to be a long, detailed conversation.
“What I fear is that if we’re not more focused in thinking about how much money we take and who we take it from and where we distribute it,” Nix said. “If we just succumb to pressure to do something and we say we’re going to cut the budget 30%, what does that mean for policing moving forward?”