By Chris Bowling
While a small crowd chanted outside, the 50 or so people who filled Omaha’s legislative chambers sat silently, waiting their turn to speak.
As they stood behind the podium, some locked eyes defiantly on each Omaha City Councilmember. Others struck their words like a hammer to a nail. They stared down intently at their prepared remarks, explaining why the council should divest funds from the Omaha Police Department during public testimony about the city’s proposed budget on Aug. 12.
At the core of every speech, they questioned the community’s relationship to the 902 sworn officers who patrol their city’s streets. They asked, “Who really holds the power?”
“Do you think the average citizen even knows that they can [file a complaint]?” Omaha resident Amanda Humes said. “Or the most vulnerable of our citizens, the ones that are most likely to have a negative experience with the police. The act of making a complaint in Omaha is a privilege and a luxury.”
In Omaha, formal police oversight is minimal. The city’s Citizen Complaint Review Board, tasked with reviewing a portion of complaints against the department, saw only six cases in the last two years. Earlier records were unavailable, the city said through a public records request made by The Reader. Furthermore, the city provided no proof the board has held any public education meetings, which it is required to do quarterly through its bylaws.
“The CCRB is not a public body, and as a result, their meetings are not open to the public, nor are any records that may be generated by the board considered to be public records,” the city said in its response.
In the wake of recent protests against police brutality, on July 15 Mayor Jean Stothert amended her executive order, which established the board in 2014, to allow complaints to go directly to the board and require the body to produce an annual report.
However, its meetings, held in Omaha Police Department headquarters and attended by officials from the city and OPD are still held in private with all case matters and recommendations to the mayor held confidentially. If members break their confidentiality agreements, they face expulsion and possible legal action.
“I still think the system that we have is the best system that there could be,” Stothert told The Reader in an interview. “I think that the worst thing that we could do would be to let a board of citizens that are not trained impose discipline. I believe that is absolutely the worst thing because it takes the power to run the department away from the chief.”
But for those calling for transparency and accountability, the city’s solution to civilian oversight in policing falls far short.
“Not only is it not transparent, it’s double-down secret,” said Spike Eickholt, a lobbyist and attorney with the ACLU of Nebraska. “That’s problematic because I think in order for the public to have some sort of assurance that the Citizen Complaint Review Board is actually doing something they have to know what it does. They have to know if they file a complaint, is it going to be taken seriously?”
Critics say Omaha needs specific statutory language that gives its Citizen Complaint Review Board more power and independence. In interviews with The Reader, several critics called for the mayor, city council and other local government officials to do away with the confidentiality and secrecy, to open up and give people a reason to believe that officers who abuse their power are being held accountable. That’s not what’s happening now, and if it doesn’t change, distrust will only fester, they said.
“You have police policing themselves,” said state Senator Justin Wayne from District 13 in North Omaha. “So if there’s a rabbit hole they don’t want to go down, what stops them from not going down it?”
‘They Don’t Want People Watching What They Do’
Stothert said that while anti-government, anti-police and anarchist sentiment has touched Omaha, she believes it makes up a very small minority. Despite hundreds being arrested in the months since protests started—enduring overcrowded jail cells and mistreatment by law enforcement—the values they’re demonstrating for do not represent most Omahans’ trust in their police force, she said.
That department has seen a reduction in the number of homicides in recent years, although it’s spiked this year. OPD has also expanded initiatives such as mental health co-responders, body-worn cameras and less lethal tasers. Chief Todd Schmaderer has also highlighted community programs, such as P.A.C.E., which gets at-risk kids involved in organized sports.
Stothert said the department, which has been accredited through the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies since 2001, monitors its officers closely. An officer like Derek Chauvin, who reportedly had a history of 17 complaints against him before he killed George Floyd in May, would never have a job in Omaha, she said.
Data obtained from OPD through a public records request shows the Omaha Police Department sided with complainants about 18% of the time from 2013 to 2020.
In Omaha, only one police officer has been fired due to a citizen complaint. OPD has also sided with a citizen in a use of force complaint only once and never sided with a citizen who accused an officer of racial profiling.
OPD has disciplined its officers 214 times since 2013, and nearly 92% of those disciplinary actions were mandated counseling or verbal or written warnings. Seventeen officers have been suspended during that same time period, accounting for about 7% of all disciplinary action.
If citizens disagree with the chief’s ruling, they can request further review from the Citizen Complaint Review Board.
In Lincoln, the police department sided with complainants nearly 60% of the time last year, according to its annual reports. That rate included both citizen and internal complaints, the latter of which skews higher in other cities.
Other larger police departments such as in Chicago sided with 2.5% of citizen complaints between 1988 and 2018, according to watchdog group Citizens Police Data Project. In Fresno, California, which has a comparable population to Omaha, police sided with citizen complaints about 19% of the time from 2016 to 2018, according to the watchdog group Campaign Zero.
In Omaha, citizens can make complaints against the police online or in person at police precincts, police headquarters, any public library or the mayor’s office. That complaint then goes to OPD’s Internal Affairs Unit where officers review the case and present findings to the chief who issues judgements. Requests to interview members of the Internal Affairs Unit were not returned.
Cases can be ruled:
Sustained — There is enough evidence to prove the allegation is true;
Not-Sustained — There is not enough evidence to prove or disprove the allegation;
Exonerated — The incident occurred but was lawful and proper;
Unfounded — The complaint or allegation is proven false;
Policy Failure — The incident may or may not have occurred, but the investigation disclosed faulty practices, policies and/or procedures.
The board, which consists of six members and one alternate, all appointed by the mayor, meets in a room at OPD headquarters and by executive order members of OPD, the city’s legal team and the Human Rights and Relations office are present to answer questions. Board members also go on ride-alongs and attend training sessions about OPD’s policies.
Board members review OPD’s findings, typically over a two-hour period, one member said, and say whether they agree or disagree.
Stothert said the low number of cases seen by Omaha’s Citizen Complaint Review Board signals that citizens are happy with OPD’s work.
“My hope is that they’ll see even less [cases],” Stothert said of the board following changes she made this year.
Maybe OPD is doing a good job, critics said, but citizens will never know until the process is opened to the public.
Marshall Lux spent nearly 40 years leading Nebraska’s Ombudsman’s Office. He and a group of investigators reviewed thousands of complaints each year and investigated numerous state agencies.
“They’ll talk about those things and maybe even sincerely change things, it’s when you get to this external oversight piece that you’re going to run into a lot of resistance,” Lux said. “Because this is the line that the police and police unions don’t want to cross. They don’t want people watching what they do.”
No current or former members of Omaha’s Citizen Complaint Review Board contacted for this story wanted to speak about the board. One member asked for their interview to be redacted after a city attorney reminded them of the confidentiality agreement board members sign.
The member said people need to understand the good work OPD does. They even saw officers punished for an incident involving Omaha police and a person in the board member’s family. Action was swift, the board member said, possibly in part because they have such a great relationship with the board.
The inability of board members to speak out, combined with a relatively low amount of information received through public records requests, sets off a red flag for someone like Lux.
“That should tell you everything you need to know about why there needs to be external oversight,” Lux said. “That’s how the system works. It builds these walls and tries to be impenetrable.”
Stothert said the reason for confidentiality and the low amount of accessible information on the board is precisely to maintain independence. But the lack of transparency has the opposite effect for some.
“It’s impossible to know the extent of the problem if the police are completely in control of that information and won’t release it,” said Justin Nix, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It goes back to trust.”
Accountability in Omaha
At one time Omaha did have an independent oversight entity. In 2000 Mayor Mike Fahey established a public safety auditor position. He fired her six years later after she released a report without his approval that stated Omaha police pulled over minorities at disproportionate rates.
Last year Omaha police pulled over Black people at rates twice their share of the population, according to data from the Nebraska Crime Commission. White drivers’ usually got tickets. Black drivers usually got arrested.
Following the creation of the Citizen Complaint Review Board in 2014, more than 150 people applied to be members. Two years later the entire board had quit, saying it saw too few cases and was effectively worthless. It had seen fewer than a dozen cases by April 2016, according to the Omaha World Herald. Samuel Walker, a UNO professor emeritus, called that number a “national joke” that would cause other boards around the country to “howl with laughter.”
After that Stothert amended her executive order so the board had its own P.O. Box where complaints could be sent.
Following protests this year, Stothert announced more changes, including that complaints can now also be sent directly to the board. But they’ll still be investigated first by the Internal Affairs Unit.
The move, which Stothert said is meant to further cement the board’s autonomy, doesn’t inspire trust in someone like ACLU lobbyist Eickholt.
“If you have a board that’s ostensibly supposed to have oversight over the police department that is literally housed in the police department and somehow works under the authority of the police department, at least in appearance it is,” he said, “then that really doesn’t ensure the public that it’s an oversight entity at all.”
Who Gets to Police the Police?
While citizens having a strong voice in overseeing their police officers seems ideal, Stothert said police are most equipped to understand the nuances of complaints.
“You could never expect a group of untrained citizens to thoroughly understand the law, police policy, use of force policy, you just can’t expect that to happen,” she said.
State Senator Wayne doesn’t buy that.
“If that’s the situation then we probably shouldn’t have school boards overseeing schools,” he said.
Wayne proposed a bill this session in the Nebraska Legislature that would establish citizen oversight boards in cities across Nebraska. Those boards would ideally have staff, investigators and subpoena power to get more information.
Both Stothert and Schmaderer argued this would be a step in the wrong direction to the Legislature’s Urban Affairs Committee in Lincoln on July 31.
“My vision of accountability is to enhance the authority of the chief,” Stothert said later. “And turn the spotlight on the activities of the chief. The last thing anybody would want to do is to create a situation where some problems come up and the chief would have to say, ‘I can’t deal with that. You got to go to a citizen board and let them deal with it.’”
Several cities already have oversight bodies similar to what Wayne proposed. In Milwaukee the seven citizens and executive director who make up the Fire and Police Commission voted unanimously on Aug. 6 to demote the city’s police chief over his handling of protests.
That authority is not the norm. Nix, the UNO professor, said police oversight boards across America often don’t have much teeth due to restrictions placed in city and police union contracts.
“The reason is quite simply because of a fear that citizens don’t understand the nuance of police use of force and how to evaluate them within legal standards,” Nix said.
But Wayne said it does more harm than good to shut citizens out.
“It isn’t just the problem of [bad policing] happening,” he said. “It’s the damage that it does to perception. So in order to build trust, sometimes you have to shine a light on it.”
While Wayne’s police oversight bill stalled in the final days of the session, he said conversations have started on reforming the state’s crime commission — focusing on decertifying fired officers (officers who are fired do not automatically lose their state certification, meaning they can move to another Nebraska city’s police department without any hurdles) and standardizing training statewide. The ACLU of Nebraska has also called for the Nebraska Legislature to convene a special session to discuss police reform.
However, he still believes the conversation around community oversight is not over.
“I get to pick and choose who my lawyer is,” Wayne said. “I get to pick and choose who my doctor is. When I call 911, I don’t get to pick and choose which officer shows up. So just doing enough, clearly demonstrated by the protests going on in Omaha, is not enough.”
‘Bad Things Happen’
Public testimony about the Omaha city budget, and specifically the portion allocated toward police, lasted three hours.
Underlining all of it was dissatisfaction with the relationship between the public and the police. And while only mentioned in name a few times, accountability underscored much of the anger. And it’s a deserved anger, some say.
“Most public bodies are open to the public,” Eickholt said. “[The public] pays for what it does, it deals with their police department that they pay for, and they ought at least have the opportunity, since they have the privilege of paying for it, of seeing what they do.”
There are signs that people are listening. Omaha City Council President Chris Jerram requested to reduce the proposed police budget by $2 million and reallocate it toward employment and other community efforts. Chief Schmaderer made several changes to OPD policy and instituted training for policy changes such as forbidding “knee-to-neck” pins and requiring officers move detained people out of the prone (face-down) position.
They are all good steps forward. But critics say if there’s no way to measure accountability, they are all just words.
“The people who actually serve on that board, the citizens, are probably well-intended, civic-minded, good people,” said former ombudsman Lux. “They’re not the problem. The problem is they’re utterly dependent on the police, and unless they have real power it becomes something like a rubber stamp for what the police decide the answer should be.”
“It’s a nice try,” he continued, “but it’s not good enough.”