- Associated Press - Saturday, October 18, 2014

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - When Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer took over the department’s top post in 2012, the agency was struggling for ways to curb rampant gun violence that had long plagued the city. Two years later, homicides have dropped dramatically and tips from the public have helped solve some of Omaha’s most violent crimes.

Much of the credit is going to Schmaderer and his push to improve the department’s relationship with the city’s poorest and most crime-ridden sections.

“Who knows the community, who knows the neighborhood, better than those that live there?” Schmaderer told The Associated Press. “We had way too many scenarios where we couldn’t get anybody to come forward and talk to us - couldn’t get any witnesses willing to put themselves out there in order to solve these cases.”

The community policing effort has included weekly meetings with community organizations, churches and individuals, as well as hosting neighborhood events and community training sessions in which residents - especially young people - get to meet and ride with officers and learn about police operations.

Schmaderer, who has spent his nearly 20-year career in Omaha, also dissolved the department’s “utility crew,” a collection of about 20 uniformed officers sent into the city’s highest-crime areas who often clashed with residents.

“That was one of the centers of harassment of alleged gang members in north Omaha, so getting rid of it was a positive step,” said Sam Walker, a retired criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the author of 14 books on policing, criminal justice policy and civil liberties.

Those officers were retrained as additional gang unit officers, with each assigned to a gang so that the officer “understands the hierarchy of that gang and every working zone of it,” Schmaderer said. That gives police more knowledge of likely suspects when gang violence does occur, he said.

An overhaul of the city’s Crimestoppers system, offering more avenues for people to anonymously offer tips, has also helped. Under Schmaderer, the reward for tips that lead to arrests in homicide cases was bumped from $1,000 - among the lowest in the country - to $25,000. Rewards for tips on gun violence jumped from $500 to $10,000. The additional money comes from private donations.

Since Schmaderer’s hiring, Omaha has seen its homicides cut nearly in half, dropping from 41 through September 2012 to 22 through this September. Incidents of gun violence have also dropped. In northeast Omaha, which accounts for nearly half of the gun violence in the city, assaults involving a gun fell from 62 through September 2012 to 48 through this September.

Schmaderer acknowledges those numbers can fluctuate from year to year and that there are no guarantees murder and violent crime rates won’t increase in the future.

Most telling, Schmaderer believes, is the spike in the percentage of solved homicides over the past two years. That rate was 46 percent in 2012. Last year, it soared to 79 percent. So far this year, 81 percent of homicides are considered solved by police.

Schmaderer credits tips from the public and points to the arrests made for the Jan. 15 death of 5-year-old Payton Benson, killed by a stray bullet from a suspected gang shooting, as one of his department’s proudest moments.

Only hours after a police news conference asking for help, police were tracking down scores of tips, Schmaderer said. Within two days, several suspected gang members had been arrested, and four now face trial in the girl’s death.

“Historically, gang violence of that nature is very hard to solve, especially when there is fear in the community to come forward on those individuals,” the chief said. “It was that particular case that resonated with me that said, ‘We are starting to make a difference.’”

Schmaderer and the department’s efforts have received praise from other law enforcement agencies and community organizations, and even longtime critics of the department praised Schmaderer’s quick action in firing four officers last year following the March 2013 arrests of three brothers - secretly recorded by a neighbor -that led to allegations of police brutality.

“Not everybody is there; there are some in the community who aren’t ready to declare trust in the police yet,” said Willie Barney, president of the Omaha Empowerment Network, a group committed to revitalizing north Omaha. “But a lot of people will tell you that, while not perfect, there’s been a lot of work on both sides to continue building trust.”

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