Omaha Mayor to appoint police oversight committee
February 12th, 2014
Omaha, NE — Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert recently announced the creation of a police oversight committee.[audio:https://kvnonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/final-.mp3]
The entire committee will be appointed by the mayor. The board will consist of five members, one from each of the four police precincts and one â€œat-largeâ€ member. Members of the committee will review citizen complaints against the police and provide citizen oversight into police investigations.
The new police oversight board will provide citizen oversight of the Omaha police department, according to Stothert.
â€œThis is another layer of oversight, a broad layer of oversight (and) since this board may have access to internal investigations it is going to have to be confidential,â€ Stothert said.
Stothert said confidentiality is necessary when it comes to police investigations. Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said the police oversight board will have the ability to review police investigations, conduct informal findings of their own and make suggestions related to police department activities to the mayor.
â€œThey are going to review the investigation that my investigators will do, but they will have the option of saying â€˜you know what I think this could have been looked into further, I think the process stopped short here,â€ Schmaderer said.
Dr. Sam Walker, Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, called the move by Mayor Stothert a â€˜token gestureâ€™, and one without much substance or merit.
â€œI think this proposal is pretty worthless,â€ Walker said. â€œI think it just doesnâ€™t have any power to accomplish anything that is going to have a positive result.â€
Professor Walker said external citizen oversight of the police is very important. However he doesnâ€™t have much faith in an informal oversight committee without any legally enforceable standing or any independent operating authority.
â€œThis particular civilian review board proposal just doesnâ€™t have any teeth (or) any real power to do anything,â€ Walker said. â€œLetâ€™s say you review a complaint that a person has filed against the police. It doesnâ€™t quite look right, or there is something here that doesnâ€™t look like its adequate or that they didnâ€™t make the right decision. Then you really need the power to investigate, to dig further, and to find out whether your doubts are correct, or whether there is a serious problem.â€
Walker is also disillusioned that this informal citizens committee, all handpicked by the mayor, will not have subpoena powers and wonâ€™t be able to lead their own investigations. They will only be authorized to review what police have already investigated. Walker said he supports a legally empowered police auditor because it is a full-time job with the legal authority that is necessary to do the job. He said the citizens who are selected to be a part of this committee wonâ€™t be paid. They will presumably have other full-time jobs and, as such, wonâ€™t be able to devote as much attention to this volunteer job as would be necessary, according to Walker.
The mayor said she feels this is the right decision as it brings more voices to the table.
â€œBasically I feel like there is the ability now with a board for broad citizen oversightâ€ Stothert said. Rather than an auditor, that is one person, who is appointed by the mayor.â€
In 2006 Mayor Mike Fahey fired police auditor Tristan Bonn, the Omaha police auditor at that time. This followed a written report that Bonn released to the media that highlighted acts of alleged discrimination by Omaha police when conducting traffic stops. Mayor Fahey declared in a letter to Bonn, â€˜it appears to me that you mistook the independence I allowed you as an indicator that you were to act as your own boss.â€™ The city ordinance to have a police auditor is still on the books. However, the position has not been filled since 2006.
There has been wild speculation in the media and elsewhere that a police auditorâ€™s salary would cost more than $250,000 per year. Stothert said paying someone a salary had no bearing on her decision.
â€œNo not at all, of course I am always looking at my budget,â€ Stothert said. â€œI mean there is no doubt about that and I count every penny with our cityâ€™s budget. But right now my goal as far as law enforcement is to get more police officers on the street.â€
Professor Walker said in the end the Mayors police oversight committee may prove to be only symbolic.
â€œSome people will in fact take their complaints to the board and they arenâ€™t going to see any positive results,â€ Walker said. “And they are going to be angrier at the end of this process then they were at the beginning. I just think itâ€™s really a mistake.â€
Walker said he would like to see the city council act on its own regarding this executive order by Mayor Stothert. He was unsure if the council would act independently, but he was convinced that the Omaha police oversight committee as it is currently empowered was not good public policy.
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