The Omaha Police Department has taken some strong steps to demonstrate how serious the city is about improving its relationship with residents suspicious of police.
For evidence, look at the way Police Chief Todd Schmaderer handled the incident at 33rd and Seward Streets.
Video shot from a nearby window showed police pursuing a bystander who was legally recording video of an arrest. The young man’s phone was confiscated; his recording, destroyed.
Schmaderer quickly called for an investigation and condemned the officers’ actions. Six were fired, and so far, all but one of the firings has stuck. The department sent a clear message about the need to protect the rights of all citizens. This constructive tone was widely noted.
In the months since, officers have reached out to neighbors and groups, churches and schools. They’ve done more than just flood high-crime zones with patrols. They’ve stuck around and worked to rebuild trust.
But history shows that suspicion of police investigating themselves has a long shelf life. Maintaining a good relationship between citizens and police is a garden that needs constant tending. Incidents that aggravate matters can and do happen.
So it is good to see Mayor Jean Stothert follow through on her campaign pledge to seek input from the public to help improve relations between the police department and the people they protect. Seeking such feedback has value.
Stothert is creating an advisory panel to review complaints against police and issue findings and recommendations to the mayor.
Critics (including the ACLU of Nebraska in a Midlands Voices essay) point to what they see as serious shortcomings. The review panel will not get subpoena power, it won’t have authority to conduct its own investigations, and its recommendations won’t be binding.
The panel also will work in confidence, which is unfortunate. Public trust is best protected when the public’s business is done in clear view. If the idea is to grow trust, it makes sense to let the public know what this group finds.
However, the Citizen Complaint Review Board will have the mayor’s ear. The police chief answers to her. And she answers to voters. There is a chain of accountability back to the public, so this group deserves a chance to prove its worth.
Stothert hopes to have five appointees in place by March. The mayor also says she is open to tweaking the board’s design to make it more effective, if problems arise.
Creation of a review mechanism, even with some shortcomings, is a positive step toward repairing trust between police and the citizens who can help officers combat violent crime in parts of the city most plagued by it.
Schmaderer and his team deserve the benefit of the doubt. As the mayor told The World-Herald: “If people review what he’s done so far when there have been incidences of misconduct, he has reviewed them quickly, done an investigation and he has come out with discipline very quickly. And that discipline has been made public.”
Relations between police and the public sometimes are less than ideal. Still, there seems little doubt that trust in the department is improving.
It is up to the mayor and her police chief to make sure that continues by responding to reasonable recommendations from this review board.
Recent history suggests they will.