74°

Omaha looks to combat its homicide problem

January 20, 2013 11:50 am  • 

OMAHA — At least 51 people were killed in Nebraska last year, and of those, nearly 80 percent were slain in Omaha.

That statistic has been fairly constant over the years, and it's led some to view Omaha as dangerous while others point to a clustering of the killings in the city's lower income areas and question the factors behind the deaths.

Most Omaha neighborhoods had no homicides in 2012, but that hasn't stopped an image from spreading in the state that the entire city has a problem with violent crime, said John Crank, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

"My wife is a Realtor, and she'll tell you that she has had clients tell her to turn the vehicle around when they go into the city," Crank said. "They say they don't want to live here."

The Nebraska Crime Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice won't release statewide homicide totals until July 1, but media reports show there were at least 51 homicides in 2012. Of those, 40 occurred in Omaha, compared to four in Lincoln.

Many of the Omaha deaths were in lower-income areas near the city's core, and more than half were in northeast Omaha.

A number of factors — from poverty and high unemployment to gangs and poor housing conditions — play into Omaha's high homicide rate, experts agreed.

"That area of northeast Omaha has the highest level of concentrated poverty in the state; it has the highest concentration of unemployment," said Willie Barney, president of the Omaha Empowerment Network, a group committed to revitalizing north Omaha. "If you look at any map across the country that has heavily concentrated poverty, heavily concentrated unemployment — in places like Cincinnati, Newark, Baltimore, Chicago — you'll see the exact same thing."

Three-quarters of Omaha's 2012 homicides were committed with a gun, and half were committed by someone with gang ties, according to Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer.

While Omaha's murder rate has increased from 10 years ago, when the city saw 27 homicides, it has remained relatively steady over the last three years. But some said they're especially troubled by the random nature of many of those killings, like the October death of 16-year-old Montrell Wiseman in a drive-by shooting. Police have said the five charged in the case targeted Wiseman because he was wearing a red sweat shirt, leading them to mistakenly assume he was a member of a rival gang.

"We had gangs when I was growing up; it's the attitudes that have changed," said Nia Williams, 32, a lifelong resident of north Omaha and an outreach specialist with the gang-intervention group Impact One. "Now, even when one of these kids loses a friend to a shooting, they don't even stop to grieve.

"Used to, you'd go to a funeral, and kids would be wearing an RIP pin. Now, they're wearing four or five RIP pins. That's what their legacy is," she said.

The police chief wouldn't speculate on why north Omaha claims the vast majority of the state's violent killings, saying, "I don't see what purpose that serves."

But Schmaderer noted his department and others are taking action to reverse the trend. That includes working closely with north Omaha community groups, seeking legislation to keep convicted violent offenders from receiving prison furloughs and holding "gun amnesty" days in which people can turn over guns to police, no questions asked.

Schmaderer also has restructured the police department since he took over as chief six months ago so that officers are assigned to specific Omaha gangs. The expertise those officers gain is used to help detectives at the scene of gang-involved shootings.

Omaha police also attend weekly meetings of Omaha 360, a group under the Omaha Empowerment Network dedicated to finding ways to reduce violence in Omaha. The meetings draw about 50 people each week, representing churches, schools, community groups, law enforcement and local, state and federal politicians.

Police and community group members point hopefully to a summer jobs effort they think shows promise in limiting gun violence.

Barney said the effort is a compilation of hundreds of summer job programs sponsored by dozens of businesses and community groups targeted for north Omaha — where unemployment is estimated as high as 25 percent, compared to less than 4 percent for all of Nebraska.

Since the summer jobs effort began in 2007, gun violence in north Omaha for the months of May, June and July has dropped by half — from 43 gun assault in 2007 to 21 in 2012, according to Barney and police.

"We've seen young men come to work every day for $7 an hour, and some of them have led them into full-time opportunities, when they hadn't before really been given an opportunity or be successful in that environment," Barney said. "If we could expand that into a year-round effort, I know we would see gun violence drop."

Crank, the professor who also is the chairman of Impact One, believes north Omaha's violent crime is a product of businesses disinvesting from the area. Getting them to reinvest will require tamping down the high rates of crime through increased police presence, he said.

But he also is optimistic the city will see fewer homicides in the future.

"Violent crime, overall, has decreased in the last 10 years. Gun crimes, however, have resisted that trend so far for some reason," Crank said. "But I don't think we're going to see the same levels in the years to come. I'd be surprised if we did."