Shan’e Perkins remembers the night Omaha police shot her brother. The oil on her mothers’ stovetop was ready for the battered fish. Aunties and a fraction of her siblings, which includes a sister and five brothers, readied for family dinner at around 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020.
Then gunshots rang out. Her youngest brother shouted from upstairs as sirens blared near their South Omaha apartment complex.
“Don’t worry, it’s got nothing to do with us,” Perkins remembered her mother saying.
Moments later they saw their son, nephew and brother, Kenneth Jones dying on the sidewalk after an Omaha police officer shot him three times in the back.
Being Black in Omaha, Perkins always knew something like this could happen. But she never expected it to happen to Kenneth, the sensitive older brother who loved his mom’s cooking, pulling pranks and checking in on his family with incessant phone calls.
“I think our family is really still in shock,” she said. “We’re hurt and it’s just been hard. It’s been hard not hearing his laugh.”
But that was just the beginning. While Omaha police said they immediately contacted Perkins’ family, she said they never got a call. When the family tried asking for answers, they got shut out, Perkins said.
Five months later, after protests, investigations and local media pressure, the footage was released, but Perkins and her family still have questions. Why were they never contacted? Why did the public get to see footage of Jones’ death before them? And above all, why did this have to happen to them?
“It’s just evil,” she said. “It’s ruthless.”
Following a year that spotlighted issues in policing and racial equity, the appetite for change hasn’t slowed in 2021. Police shootings in Chicago, Columbus, Brooklyn Center and elsewhere have led to sharp turnarounds in body cam footage, sometimes within days. But that didn’t happen here.
Though the Omaha Police Department was not bound by law to withhold the body cam footage, Omahans had to wait. While there’s several reasons to withhold footage, experts agree it comes at the detriment of public trust, transparency and accountability.
“It seems like a case of ‘Well, this is the way that, we do things,’” said Justin Nix, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “Well in 2021, maybe that doesn’t cut it anymore.”
For activists like David Carney, the ordeal has only further convinced him that something fishy is going on. In other cities, citizens don’t have to beg to see this sort of stuff. In Omaha, the best Carney, and members of the media, could get was seeing the footage under the supervision of a Douglas County official after making a formal request to the county court. Hours after he saw it on April 23, and after local media published stories, the police department announced they would release the footage.
“I’m not gonna be satisfied with any small movements,” he said. “Like, over the summer with the protests, there were small changes made to policy and things like that. At least that something. I just haven’t seen any communication about this.”
For so many the question now remains: What happens next? Perkins wonders, if this happened tomorrow to a different family, would they suffer through the same process? Did Omaha learn anything? As her family eyes potential further legal action, she’s not confident.
“I’ve been here all my life. So this is home. This is all I know,” Perkins said. “But to keep experiencing this it’s just kind of like, when are things gonna change? Are things gonna change?”
‘He Just Looked Scared’
On Nov. 23, OPD Chief Todd Schmaderer stood in front of journalists to read the details of a traffic stop that lasted about a minute and resulted in a man’s death. Schmaderer showed pictures, read quotes from the video and said the body cam footage showed “one of the most noncompliant traffic stops that I have ever seen.”
Months later the video painted a less concrete picture.
Officers Dan Faulkner and Richard Martier, who’ve both been with OPD since 2016, pulled over a car near 27th and Harrison streets for reportedly travelling too slow and starting and stopping down the road. In testimony, the officers said they thought maybe the driver was impaired—later tests showed she was not.
Audio from the footage, which comes from the cruiser as well as two body-worn cameras and lasts about 30-45 minutes each, starts as officers get out of the car.
They tell each other a man in the backseat is reaching around. They pull their guns and yell the first of several commands for people to put their hands up, of which the entire car besides Jones does.
Martier points the gun toward the back passenger seat where Jones is sitting.
“I’ve got my gun in your fucking face,” he yells through a half open window.
Martier starts pulling on the door and ordering the driver to open it. She presses the button as Martier continues to pull. Eventually the lock appears to pop up, but Martier still pulls out a flash light, smashes the window and pulls Jones through. Martier’s body-worn camera falls as the two struggle.
Faulkner’s footage shows Martier reaching for Jones’ hands, which are shoved down his waistband. Martier appears to feel a gun, backing away and screams “Gun, gun, gun.” Officers testify that Jones appeared to turn and pull the gun out. Fearing for he and his partner’s safety, Faulkner fired four shots, hitting Jones three times in the back.
Both officers perform several minutes of CPR as the three women from the car scream.
“You just shot my homie for no reason,” one of them wails.
“He had a gun!” the officers scream back.
Later during a grand jury organized by Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, officers painted a picture of a dynamic situation in which police followed protocol in the face of a tense situation. But others saw something else.
“I was watching for certain things that could be used to like twist the narrative a little bit,” said Leah Bifano, an activist who watched the body cam footage alongside journalists. “Like, ‘Oh, he wasn’t compliant and blah blah, blah.’ But he just looked scared. He just looked scared.”
Do officers draw their guns whenever anyone appears to be reaching around? Could they have attempted to de-escalate the situation? Perkins expected those answers to come from the grand jury. But because every witness called was a member of OPD, except for the pathologist who examined Jones’ body, that process, which yielded no charges in her brothers’ case, is null too.
“This is not right,” Perkins said. “The system is not right.”
After receiving no contact following the shooting, Perkins’ family had to find out what a grand jury was from activists. Meanwhile rumors have circled, causing even more questions than answers.
In their own testimony, officers say Jones had traveled around Omaha the day before he died, stopping at gas stations and other places throughout the day. The pathologist also testified Jones had been on Phencyclidine, known as PCP, when he died. Jones also had previous charges for owning a gun with a felony charge. But none of it adds up for Perkins as she still searches for the truth.
“That’s not the end of it,” Perkins said. “I know some people believe that when the grand jury made their decision, that’s it. But that’s not necessarily the case.”
In recent weeks, policing shootings across the country have revealed just how disparate laws concerning releasing body worn footage are.
While some departments released footage soon after the incident, others in states like North Carolina tried but were ordered not to by local courts. In total 23 states have laws governing body worn cameras, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Nebraska law does not prohibit the release of body cam footage, but it does allow flexibility.
Following Jones’ death in November, Schmaderer said the footage would eventually be released, but the department did not want to influence any members of the county’s eventual jury pool. In March, the grand jury convened to analyze 15 cases in the span of a week.
That seems unusual to Kyle McLean, an associate professor in Clemson University’s College of Behavioral Social and Health Sciences.
“I think that is relatively odd,” he said, “with the caveat that a lot of odd things happen in the court system and sometimes they have perfectly benign explanations, like, there’s just a backlog of cases or something like that.”
In general, grand juries operate in a black box across the country, and for arguably a good reason. Rather than arguing guilty or not guilty, grand juries determine whether charges can be brought against a person. If no charges are brought, then maintaining the person’s innocence should be protected.
But questions have been raised about whether grand juries are always fair. In Ferguson, Missouri, the public accused the county attorney of leading a skewed trial. Even in Omaha, the public accused Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine of bringing no charges against Jake Gardner, a former bar owner who shot and killed protester James Scurlock in one of the first nights of demonstrations. The public is again scrutinizing Kleine in this case for the lack of witnesses outside of OPD. The county also came under scrutiny for investigating Jones’ case, along with 14 others, in the span of the week. It appears Jones’ case was discussed no longer than a day.
“I just thought that was like, like, how is that even legal?” Perkins asked “Like, how is that even legal?…There’s just so many red flags. They’re doing so many things wrong. And inconsistent. And did they not think that was going to go to the public and people weren’t going to find that odd?”
Following the grand jury findings, a public information officer with OPD told The Reader while “there is no law prohibiting our department from releasing video related to grand jury proceedings,” OPD would “continue to adhere to the grand jury process outlined in Nebraska Rev. Statute 29-1407.01 with regard to the public review of any evidentiary exhibits and transcripts from a returned ‘no true bill’ grand jury proceeding.”
That law states in the event of a no true bill, or no wrongdoing found, exhibits will be made available to the public upon written request. After many, including The Reader, made requests, the footage was released. In a statement the city said, under law, records can be withheld unless publicly disclosed by another entity. Because the county allowed public review, OPD said it was obligated to release the footage.
Experts say there are good arguments not to release footage—showing policing without context can lead to misinterpretation or the family of a victim may not want others to see it. But given the public’s demand for accountability and transparency, departments need to weigh the consequences.
“What impact does withholding footage have on community perceptions?” asked John Shjarback assistant professor in Rowan University’s Department of Law & Justice Studies. “Is it possible that withholding that footage does more harm than releasing it?”
While the footage showing police shootings can incite the public, it’s also led to serious conversations about traffic stops just like Jones’. From Rodney King in Spring 1991 to Daunte Wright in Spring 2021, the public needs to see and ask questions of their police.
“The police should be responsive to the will of the people and do what people want it to do,” McLean said. “So this idea that the public should just have no say, in policing or police practices because they’re not police officers, runs antithetical to this whole idea of democracy.”
While no bills concerning body-worn cameras have been introduced in this year’s session of the Nebraska Legislature, others that would require public databases on police hirings, firings and misconduct are in the works. As the city’s May 11 general election approach, conversations about criminal justice reform and stronger citizen-police oversight are also happening.
But citizens like Carney are unsure what, if anything will come of it. Carney begged the Omaha City Council to take funds from the police and not approve the police union contract with the city. Instead the union got the contract and OPD got a raise and their largest, most diverse class of recruits ever.
In light of last year’s protests, OPD announced new trainings, recommitted to longheld community relationships and held up their national accreditation as proof they are one of the best departments in the country.
To Perkins, none of it inspires hope.
“Like, what?” she asked. “What are they doing? They just hired all these police and got all this money? Like, what are you doing?”
Nix said the truth is complicated. OPD fired an officer for their conduct in last year’s protests following an internal investigation. That’s rare, Nix said. OPD participates in community programs like Omaha 360, a forum between police and the community, and P.A.C.E., a sports program for officers and kids. Those are also pretty impressive, Nix said.
But demanding more transparency and accountability is equally, if not more valid.
“I don’t know that I have a very complicated argument to disagree with [not releasing footage],” McLean said. “The truth is important. And transparency and accountability are important. And yeah, it’s difficult. It’s difficult video. It’s difficult topics protests are challenging cities to deal with and for police departments to deal with. But that doesn’t excuse burying the truth. Right?”
‘It Just Went on Way Too Long’
Kenneth Jones’ mom has a window that looks out onto the street corner where her son died. “She still has a computer that sits right there,” Perkins said. “It looks right at the street corner. So she keeps replaying that daily.”
Sometimes she just wants to run away from Omaha. But where else can she go? This is home.
This is the city where her dad, a mechanic, and her mother, a food service worker, raised the tight-knit family of seven. This is where they’ve had too many family dinners to count. They’ve laughed, cried and persisted here for years.
But now home is complicated. While she always knew racism existed in Omaha, she never expected it to show up like this. Being left in the dark after her brother died, promising reform but giving nothing, she said.
It’s forced her headlong into politics and activism. She’s become the mouthpiece for her still grieving family. It’s all so tiring.
And the worst part about it is, she’s not sure what healing, if that’s even possible, looks like. She still thinks about the void left in her family. She remembers the birthday presents Jones bought for his daughter that he was never able to give her.
When asked how she would react if the city, its police department or Douglas County called her today to apologize, Perkins didn’t pause to think about her answer.
“I believe in people making bad decisions and people being remorseful. But from the beginning, they weren’t,” she said. “[It just went on] way too long.”
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