Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer announced the firing of three officers and a command officer on Friday. The discipline is part of an internal investigation after a rough arrest recorded on video last month.
"Three officers have been released of duty pending a termination hearing with the city's labor relations director, one command officer has been relieved of duty pending a termination hearing with the city labor director. The Omaha Police Department has tremendous dedicated professionals, but we did not carry ourselves in that manner on March 21st near 33rd and Seward. Many of the police activities that day are in violation of our policies and do not represent how I want our officers to carry themselves."
The police chief stressed that his investigation is still ongoing, but the bulk of it is complete. He had help from Omaha legal, the Douglas County attorney and the FBI, but he made it clear the buck stops with him.
"To recognize the investigation is of extreme importance to the community, for that reason I am using an outside reviewer the reviewing is the Federal Bureau of Investigation. These are my findings to date. I stand by my decision and any criticism leveled after today should be focused directly at me.”
“The way the civil rights policy is set up is just to ensure that an independent board, separately from the FBI here in Omaha, will review such evidence,” said FBI Special Agent Tom Metz. “Again, I'd like to emphasize we have a very good relationship with the chief and the staff and they have been fully cooperative.”
Three other officers have been placed on administrative leave with pay. Another was reassigned.
"Public trust has been damaged and I needed to take steps to restore that public trust," the chief said during a morning news conference. The chief added he's still bound by contractual guidelines and can't talk about specifics. "I truly believe closure and transparency is in the best interest of all involved." He said the officers involved did not follow procedure.
There were 21 officers and two command officers on the scene that afternoon at 33rd and Seward. It started over a call to check for illegal parking. A neighbor recorded video of an officer taking down 28-year-old Octavius Johnson, who was having his car towed for expired tags. Allegations of police brutality quickly followed after the video was posted on YouTube.
Jacquez Johnson, who videotaped the arrest of his older brother, is withholding comment on the firings. He's still wondering what happened to his video camera which he says officers took.
Chief Schmaderer said some have suggested that no use of force is acceptable, but he said, "This is simply not the case." He said this incident does not represent the professionalism and standards of conduct of the Omaha Police Department.
The officers terminated may appeal the decision.
“I would call this unprecedented." Omaha Police Association President Sgt. John Wells said he doesn't know the facts of the case, but trusts the chief will do a thorough and fair investigation. The chief cannot name the officers who have been disciplined as that goes against the union contract.
"There's a lot of different reasons for that. In a private corporation you don't want an officer to be saddled with some minor discipline throughout their career. They do have rights, there is a process of appeal and in some cases a recommendation for termination is overturned."
If any criminal charges are warranted against the officers, the chief said Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine would be the one to address that. Kleine later said this is a new, independent investigation for his office, not just an extension of what OPD has done. His office will look into the actions that can be seen on the videotape, but it will also examine what happened inside the house.
"The information we've been privy to is there was evidence mishandled in that residence by Omaha police. We will not only look at what happened outside but inside the residence." The Nebraska State Patrol and the FBI are assisting with Kleine's investigation. "I want to assure the public that this conduct will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted to the furthest extent of the law."
Mayor Jim Suttle had this reaction to the firings. "The police department has policies and procedures that must be adhered to all times, especially when dealing with the public. Chief Schmaderer's determination to uphold the department's professional standards is admirable."
Mayoral candidate Jean Stothert said, “Misconduct using excessive force must not be tolerated. I applaud Chief Schmaderer for leading a thorough investigation, moving quickly and decisively to repair public trust and for taking appropriate, corrective action."
Among those who's been putting pressure on the department is a man who found himself involved in a controversial arrest two years ago, Robert Wagner. In his case two officers were fired, but arbitrators gave them their jobs back. Is he worried the same will happen here?
“I believe once you bring in the county attorney, Don Kleine, and maybe he files a charge, yeah, I think that would make it a little more difficult. There were never charges filed against officers in my case. I think that made it easier for them to get their employment back. It does put faith back in the police department, especially the chief. He'll get criticism, but it's good to see him saying that these guys were in violation.”
A group of pastors called the Clergy of North Omaha said the decision made by the police chief was firm and fair. “Definitely some good has come out of it,” said Pastor Wayne Banks of Pleasant Green Baptist Church. “It's given the chief and his staff the opportunity that there's a new culture that we're trying to foster in this community. We as a community need to support him in his efforts to make the entire city of Omaha safe. We can't cut his legs from under him. We need to be there for him because he's being there for us."
Even with the firings, the clergy said there's still room for independent police oversight.