Experts weigh in on Omaha Police Department reforms


March 12th, 2014

Omaha, NE – The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska wants the Omaha Police Department to change its ways.

Amy Miller, legal director for the organization, said the group has reached out to the Department of Justice, the state’s attorney general and Omaha city officials to investigate wide range of concerns; from evidence planting scandals, citizen shootings and killings and the absence of a police auditor. But to no avail—all of them declined to move forward with an investigation.

“Even though there is a level of frustration we keep asking for help from the powers that be, ACLU and these other community organizations have decided well let’s ask the people,” Miller said.

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said a lack of trust between citizens and the police creates a negative environment where people are not willing to come forward, report crimes or work with the police, which affect public safety as a whole.

“It’s a real lack of trust with the city population because of the history that they have had. It’s been rather unfortunate that there have been a number of incidents where there has been police abuse or misbehavior and it really undermines any trust or confidence that the community has when it comes to policing,” Alvarado said.

ACLU has developed four reforms for the Omaha Police Department: a citizen review board, training, transparency and body worn cameras.

Miller said a citizen review board could interview the police, look at police reports and make recommendations. The organization has also proposed posting all of OPD’s standard operating procedures online so that citizens can review them.

They have also requested anti-bias and de-escalation training for officers as well as the use of body warn cameras.

“Overall with those four reforms if the police chief is sharing info by the website, sharing info through the civilian oversight process, and they’re doing internal reform cameras watching what’s going on in the streets and training to stop bad behavior as it’s emerging we’ll have a healthy police department again,” Miller said. “It’s been a long, long time coming and these changes need to be implemented pretty soon here because you are listening to decades worth of frustration coming from citizens.”

Sam Walker, police accountability expert, said that OPD has a lack of training and supervision.  He said a department has to have state of the art policies and really good training over those policies.

“Police departments are very complex organizations in the sense that you have all of these people with enormous power and power to use force working out there alone or in pairs and usually without supervision,” Walker said. “You constantly have to reinforce the training and the supervision and once that begins to wither away it really begins to snow ball and officers learn that there are a lot of things that they can get away with.”

Walker also believes that body worn cameras will work to protect citizens and officers.

“It works both ways. It will confirm or deny or refute the argument on either side. I also think it will have an important deterrent effect,” Walker said. “If an officer knows that there is a record of this on this video camera in terms of unnecessary force, calling people names and so forth.”

Alvarado said body cameras are a good first step but more needs to be done for long-term results.

“It’s a mechanical solution to a larger issue. I think if we can help the police to be much more transparent not only in the way that they engage the community but how they might be held accountable…that would be the best thing of all.”

Currently, the ACLU Nebraska has a law suit pending against OPD on behalf of the Johnson family after officers used excessive force and warrantless search and seizure during a parking incident in March 2013. They also have a racial profiling case pending in court against the Douglas County Sheriffs office for the racial profiling of a Middle Eastern man who was left on the side of the road for several hours while officers searched his vehicle.


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