While violence in Omaha, particularly among young males, continues at an alarming rate, the only recent examination of gang violence is being buried by the stakeholders who commissioned it, and who are tasked foremost with addressing this issue – North Omaha’s Empowerment Network and the Omaha Police Department.
UNO professors Pete Simi and Dennis Hoffman spent 14-months on the 2011-2012 Omaha Gang Assessment and both are noted experts in criminal justice.
“Pete Simi is an outstanding scholar with national credentials,” according to Sam Walker, professor emeritus of UNO’s School of Criminology and a national expert on police auditors. “He received a research grant from the National Institute of Justice. He wrote a book that won a lot of praise, American Nazi, on an important topic that is difficult to research. And he recently received a Guggenheim fellowship.”
Walker continued, “Dennis Hoffman has been involved in racial justice issues here in Omaha. He has some very good knowledge of perceptions at the street level of police community relations. He has a different expertise that he brings to this issue. People who have criticized them are really making personal attacks that are not supported by the evidence of their credentials.”
While the report has been soundly condemned in the media by law enforcement officials and the Empowerment Network, little has been said about how both groups are walking away from a study they requested.
According to Simi, the idea of a gang assessment started when he attended a meeting in the summer of 2010 with representatives from the Mayor’s office, the police department and the Empowerment Network. “A colleague asked me, because of my research with gangs, to write a gang assessment so the city could apply for funds for gang intervention and prevention.” At that meeting, Simi was asked if he could put together a report in two weeks. He told them it would not be comprehensive but he agreed to write something because he “wanted to be of service to the community.”
Simi quickly submitted a 50-page report that relied on Census data. It contained no criticisms or evaluations and no interviews with any of the stakeholders, including current or former gang members. Nine months later, he was contacted to do a comprehensive assessment over a 12-month period and the result was the 85-page 2012 report that has generated so much controversy.
“I was told second hand what they really wanted was a duplicate of the report I did in 2010,” he said.
According to Simi, the 2012 report attempts to follow the appropriate guidelines set out by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a division of the U.S. Justice Department. “Not naming sources, that’s a consistent method when doing research with human subjects in the social sciences,” he said.
Some of the things the OJJDP model calls for were not possible to achieve. It is suggested that a steering committee follow the progress of the assessment on a monthly basis. No steering committee was formed, though Simi urged the stakeholders to do so.
Other key stakeholders did not participate in compiling the report. Walker said, “The homicide unit of the Police Department did not cooperate. Number two, Omaha Public Schools refused to cooperate.” According to Simi, OPS does not participate in a statewide risk assessment of students so they do not have data.
This lack of cooperation may account for the charge that the report is “incomplete.”
Walker defends the report in spite of the non-involvement of certain institutions. “I do not accept the criticisms,” he said. “It’s a very good report I am not surprised at the reaction. It’s embarrassing to many people and organizations. And to be blunt about it, the people who are making the criticisms have a vested interest in the findings. Professors Simi and Hoffman were independent scholars. If they found out the city was doing an outstanding job, they were prepared to report that.”
One of the report’s recommendations is to reinstate the position of Public Safety Auditor, a position that was abruptly eliminated in 2006. Attorney Tristan Bonn is the former auditor. “This exact thing has happened before. You come out with an objective professional report and the facts are never addressed. It just turns into a personal attack on the writer,” Bonn said.
Walker is involved in a group that has been addressing police misconduct in Omaha. They sent a letter to the Justice Department on March 10 asking for a federal investigation into the police department for abuse of citizens’ rights. “The core issues are a lack of training and a lack of supervision of officers on the street. We have been working to try to reinstate the office of auditor since 2006. So you have the auditor’s report, our letter to the Justice Department, and now the gang assessment. That’s three. How many do you need?” Walker asked. “The city is in complete denial about its problems.”
There has been some question about who “owns” the 2012 Gang Assessment. Simi and Hoffman consider it to be a public document because the contract to write the report was with the city. It is available online and the authors encourage the public to read it. The 11-page evaluation and recommendation section begins on page 74 with the subtitle, “Recipes for Failure.” Quotes from interviews with gang members are on page 80.
Willie Hamilton, a long-time police auditor advocate and now head of the political action committee for the local chapter of the NAACP, sees the controversy as an invitation to bring people to the table. “Don’t think for a moment this is not galvanizing the community,” he said. A community forum about the Gang Assessment is being planned by a group that came together in support of Simi and Hoffman’s report because they do not want its recommendations ignored or suppressed.
“We are going to invite all the parties mentioned in the report. The police, the Mayor’s office, the Empowerment Network. We have got to have an open, honest dialogue about the report,” he said. “To disregard this report when we as a community know this is nothing new — we’ve been hearing these stories for years. We don’t need a report to tell us that north Omaha is policed differently than other parts of the city.”
“It took two white professors to basically tell our story,” Hamilton said.
In the original posting and printed edition, we incorrectly reported that Willie Hamilton was the head of the NAACP. He’s the head of the local NAACP’s political action committee. We apologize for the error.