In recent years, Omaha has enjoyed national attention, high “livability” rankings and a heightened self-image.
With an internationally acclaimed zoo, a world-famous investor, an Oscar-winning filmmaker, national sports events and more — including low unemployment and lots of economic development — Omaha has plenty of reasons to feel good about itself.
Heck, we've even watched a famous quarterback shouting our city's name as code to his teammates, which has drawn a crazy, fun amount of attention on social media and in the news media.
And yet, in the midst of all the good, we sat stunned last week when a 5-year-old girl named Payton, eating breakfast in the seeming safety of her home, was shot and killed by a stray bullet — the fifth child age 6 or younger to be killed by a stray bullet in Omaha since 2002.
“It's so sad, so horrifying, that something like that can happen in our community,” said Don Kleine, Douglas County's chief criminal prosecutor. “We want to make sure people don't get used to it and say it's part of life here. It can't be. We shouldn't let it be.”
No, we should never get used to little children being slaughtered by stray bullets, but those five — ages 6, 5, 5, 2 and 4 months — aren't the only ones. Friday's World-Herald detailed several others, including teenagers, who were killed or wounded in recent years by stray bullets.
Most of those shootings occurred in Omaha's section of highest poverty, a northeast area that many refer to generically as “north Omaha.” It's home to lots of good people who must put up with gang rivalries and occasional random gunfire.
Kleine, who spoke last week at the Omaha Press Club, urged that Omahans not see crime as merely a north Omaha problem.
“It's not an issue for any certain part of Omaha,” he said. “It's an issue for all of Omaha, all of Douglas County. ... Everybody needs to be involved, everyone needs to care about it.”
Kleine, who serves as the elected Douglas County attorney, heads a staff of 59 lawyers. Citizens, he said, must not ignore crime and related problems of poverty — such as a lack of jobs, opportunities and education — by thinking that only one area of town is affected.
He said “99.99 percent” of local people are hardworking folks who care about their neighbors and the community as a whole.
“It's just a very small percentage of people,” he said, “who cause some of the problems we see.”
He often sees the effects of those crimes up close. He speaks to victims' heartbroken families. He takes horrible images home with him, as do others, including first responders.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Said Kleine, who also coaches a fifth-grade girls basketball team: “It just tears you up.”
I arrived in Omaha fresh out of college in 1970. As one who loves this community, I lament that people in north Omaha continue to endure many of the city's toughest problems.
Two and a half years ago, Kiplinger's Personal Finance rated Omaha the “top value city” in America. Describing Omaha's “hot business climate, cool amenities and cheap-and-easy living,” the publication said the top ranking was based on economic vitality, low cost of living and ample cultural offerings.
Robert Frick, the director of the rankings project for Kiplinger's, visited and talked with many Omahans. He termed north Omaha, with high unemployment and a high crime rate, Omaha's Achilles' heel.
Said Frick: “If Omaha could fix north Omaha, if you guys could solve that problem, Omaha could be almost mythical.”
It's no myth that many have worked hard to improve life in north Omaha — including schools, churches, law enforcement agencies, volunteers, government workers and nonprofit groups such as Girls Inc., the Boys & Girls Clubs and the Building Bright Futures organization.
Last Wednesday morning, City Councilman Ben Gray proudly took part in the opening of a Walmart store bringing 300 jobs to the area. By midmorning, he learned that his nephew's 5-year-old, Payton Benson, had died from the latest stray bullet.
The utter indignity of guns being fired in a residential neighborhood and killing a child stood in contrast to the dignity of her mother, Tabatha Manning, who tearfully asked our community to help her forgive the people responsible.
Payton Benson's name isn't famous like that of Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos quarterback who has brought attention to our city by calling out “Omaha!”
But maybe the memory of little angel Payton, who will be buried Thursday, could help unite all of Omaha.
And perhaps, as her mother mournfully suggested, encourage some street criminals to put down their guns.