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police officer led Roger Sayers, then director of the city human relations
department, to urge black citizens to keep cool, despite the widely held view
in the community that the police had increased their arrests in the area with
the intention of clearing the streets.
The incident also reinforced
anti-black feeling, according to then police-community relations coordinator
Al Pattavina. Patrolman Marvin McClarty, a black officer and member of the
community relations unit, stated at the time that the police reflect the general attitude of the community towards blacks. 12
In 1970 the League of Women Voters of Omaha surveyed businessmen,
religious leaders, city hall personnel, minority group members, high school
students, young adults, police officers and league members. (There is no
indication of how many were surveyed.) At that time two out of every three
persons interviewed stated that police-community relations were "only fair or poor or bad." All minority respondents and all but one of the high school
students, religious leaders and young adults believed relations were bad.
However, all but one of the respondents from the police division, all but one
of the respondents from city hall and a majority of the businessmen respondents believed relations were good.
In the aftermath of a 1974 shootout between police and a black gunman,
resulting in the death of an officer and the gunman, black ministers urged
that "policemen are going to have to stop thinking of themselves as little tin
gods and the community will have to stop looking upon policemen as being their
arch enemy." One minister suggested that race relations in Omaha had become worse than those in the south. 14
In its 1975 report to the mayor, the Mayor's Task Force on
Police-Community Relations, Community Concerns Subcommittee, stated:
There is a mutual lack of respect between the Omaha Police Division and significant numbers of the young, minority, poor, and in some cases elderly Omahans. This lack of respect makes positive police-community relations a sham.
After obtaining the views of many Omahans through public hearing testimony, personal interviews and telephone inquiries, the committee has concluded that this lack of respect must be dealt with promptly if the city is to have effective and humane law enforcement.
To be sure, not all lack of respect is based on documentable facts. Some of the mistrust is based on peoples' feelings. But fact or feeling, the rift between some citizens and officers is there.
Findings--Broadly described, citizens' complaints about Omaha police fall into these categories:
--There is a tendency for officers in the largely white police force to use excessive force and/or discourtesy when they stop minority persons.
--When an incident occurs in minority and poor communities, there is invariably too much show of force by the police. This distorted presence only helps fuel existing tensions.
--The committee found many minority and poor citizens who believe police are not there to protect them, but to protect the white community.
--A corollary point is the distinct feeling that there is a dual system of justice in Omaha. Many Omahans heard by the committee believe that police officers allow prostitution, street gambling and their own misuse of firearms to flourish in poorer neighborhoods when they wouldn't tolerate it in more affluent neighborhoods. Similarly, many people believe suspects or law violators are handled one way in affluent neighborhoods and in another, harsher way in minority and poor neighborhoods.
--When citizens do make complaints about police conduct, they
--Most minority citizens are sure that most of Omaha's white police officers are racist to one degree or another. Police officers, according to our task force survey, don't believe minority and poor citizens support them. This makes it almost impossible for viable police-community relations. 15
The newspaper files do not show any reviews of community perceptions
between 1975 and 1980. But then interest recurred. Although then Chief
Andersen did not think relations between the police and community had
deteriorated, State Senator Ernest Chambers pointed out that there had been a
number of incidents in which the police had used excessive force. He said
that there were a few officers who were highly prejudiced and blamed then Mayor Al Veys and Chief Andersen for failing to control these men.
concerns were shared by four veteran black police officers interviewed by the
World-Herald. They pointed out that as race relations became less visibly
tense many of the police-community relations initiatives of the city had been
abandoned and that their absence contributed to a rise in hostility. They
thought merely by properly disciplining the few officers responsible for
allegations of brutality much of the tension could be reduced. The mayor,
chief of police and president of the Omaha police union denied there were any problems. 17 The World-Herald, commenting editorially, stated "There exists
within the black community an impression that its complaints are not handled
properly within the Police Department. Whether this be true or not, the
118 impression and suspicion become deeper with each incident. Then deputy
police chief Joseph Friend commented that "The respect for policeman just
isn't there anymore. It's a sign of the times. Respect for authority is declining and the policeman is taking the brunt of it." He pointed out that
"Some people believe that policemen are brutal and they think they will be
brutalized, so they react before anything happens.'
Commenting on charges made by the black community of police misconduct,
former mayor Al Veys said that "inflammatory comments about possible problems between police and blacks do nothing to help solve problems. 20 He was
responding to allegations by a black minister that "We have youngsters beaten,
we have mothers propositioned by white officers. We've pointed this out to your city officials and they still refuse to believe us."21
Current Community Attitudes
Current community attitudes toward the police cover a broad spectrum of
opinion, Some express fear, others ambivalence, and others support.
Wilda Stephenson stated that the "police instill an attitude of fear instead of protection."22 Robert Broom stated that a sizable portion of the
black community does not trust the police, and that there are also feelings of fear and disrespect toward police officers. But Mr. Broom did point out that
23 there are parts of the black community which support the police.
Ramirez, director of the Chicano Awareness Center, stated that the Hispanic
community sees the police as the enemy, although he also said he did not hear
24 of many problems with the police from the Hispanic community. I.C. Plaza,
an Omaha resident and chairperson of the Nebraska Mexican American Commission
stated that he did not hear complaints from the Hispanic community in Omaha
about police but added that the city's Hispanic population is so dispersed that perhaps no pattern of problems emerges or gains attention.2
of community residents told staff that they were unhappy about what they
viewed as unnecessary roughness used by police to arrest teenagers for minor
Bernice Dodd, director of Omaha's Opportunity Industrial Center (OIC) and a long time resident of Omaha, concluded that the residents of North Omaha are as afraid of the police as the police are of North Omaha.
27 The minority communities perceive the police as often hostile to them.
Typical of this view was the statement by the president of the local NAACP,
James Hart, that police officers have a preconceived fear of blacks which
causes them to overreact in some cases.
Blacks, on the other hand, fear the
police and expect mistreatment. 28 One citizen stated that police do not
believe they have to do anything about crime in the black neighborhoods
because blacks do not have any political clout.
George Garnett, director
of North Omaha Community Development, Inc., stated that the community
perceives the police as "potentially dangerous to their health" but also
realize they need the police, explaining that good police-community relations
and good police protection translate into economic development which the black
community needs. He noted some improvement since March 1981 which he attributed to the new city administration.30 A black police officer stated
that the lack of witnesses to crimes in the black community is evidence not
that there are no witnesses but that people do not know or trust police and therefore do not come forward. 31
Luke Nichols, a member of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance,
stated that police brutality was never a serious problem, rather the problem
is unequal treatment such as stopping only black citizens for routine traffic
checks or not taking crime in the black community seriously. He stated that
the community wants the "after hours joints," gambling and drug dealing out of
the community but they also want the police to respect everyone's rights when they come into the community. 32
Sonny Foster, a member of the Board of Directors of Urban League, stated
that he believes the black community is more supportive of the police than any
other segment of Omaha. Mr. Foster asserted that black citizens want crime
out of their neighborhoods but they also want their constitutional rights
Similar sentiments were expressed by Wayne Tyndall, Director
of the American Indian Center of Omaha. Mr. Tyndall said he realized that in
encounters with the police American Indians were not entirely blameless, but
even if there is cause for arrest, they should be treated fairly and not harassed. 34
Many in the community expressed support for the police. Rita Garcia of
the Indian-Chicano Health Center reported her clients had not complained about the police and that she thought bilingual services were adequate.
Plaza said he thought the Hispanic community sees the police as friendly and helpful and that bilingual services are adequate. 36 Mr. Ramirez, however,
was of the opinion that language problems do occur that cause simple
situations, like issuing a traffic ticket, to escalate into serious
associations called IMPACT, told staff that on the whole people are
sympathetic to the police and understand what they face on the street.