As Omaha seeks to finalize its next collective bargaining agreement with the police union, many of the tensions that rose from summer protests over police conduct have come to the fore.
The terms of the next five-year contract between the city and the Omaha Police Officers Association call for an average raise of nearly 3% a year, a paid holiday to recognize Juneteenth and steps that city and police leaders say will increase accountability and transparency.
It also calls for changes to police health care and takes steps to address the underfunded police pension system.
More than two dozen people opposed the contract during a public hearing Tuesday before the Omaha City Council, invoking the death of Zachary Bear Heels and arguing that the Police Department still has too much control over discipline of its officers.
The contract, subject to a vote by the City Council on Nov. 24, would take effect in 2021.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said strengthening officer accountability was a key point at the bargaining table over the past year and a half.
Schmaderer said at the top of his list was an included provision that would extend how long new hires are on probation, from one year to two. He said problems with officers often manifest in their second year on the job, and the change would give him the ability to fire such officers without an appeal.
The contract also would create a three-member committee to review appeals by officers who have been reprimanded. The city will select one member, the police union will select another and the two bodies will jointly select a third citizen member.
“Our utmost goal was to be fair to the police officers and to be fair to the taxpayers,” Schmaderer said.
Opponents Tuesday were skeptical that a review committee made up of city- and police-approved members would hold officers accountable.
“They should be independently elected, and they should be members of the public,” Apollo Bythrow said.
Many opponents said Omaha should eliminate arbitration, the process by which terminated officers can appeal to get their jobs back. Several spoke of the death of Bear Heels, a mentally ill Native American man who died in 2017 after Omaha police punched and shocked him a dozen times with a Taser.
Schmaderer fired four officers involved, but three of the four were reinstated by an arbitrator. Opponents Tuesday said that arbitration allows dangerous officers to get their jobs back.
“Police unions protect cops at the cost of community safety,” said Jaden Perkins, who called himself a protester and Black Lives Matter activist.
Some questioned whether officers should be receiving pay raises, while others called for easier access to reports on officer discipline and use of force.
City and police officials said chances are slim to none that Omaha would be able to eliminate a provision such as arbitration. That’s because in Nebraska, an impasse on a police union contract negotiation would go to the State Commission of Industrial Relations, called the CIR.
The CIR would look at comparable cities. If a majority of other cities have arbitration, the CIR’s final order would include the same, said Bernard in den Bosch, a deputy city attorney.
Tuesday’s public hearing came on the same day that a federal judge heard arguments on the ACLU of Nebraska’s request to curb the Omaha Police Department’s ability to take action against nonviolent protesters.
Under another contract provision, citizens who want to file complaints against officers will no longer have to engage in an initial in-person interview with the department’s internal affairs division or a member of the police command staff. Instead, complainants can directly contact the Human Rights and Relations Board or the Citizen Complaint Review Board to get their complaint notarized before continuing with the complaint process.
“This year has demonstrated in the most public way ever the need to recruit and to retain our well-trained and well-managed police department, and to listen and respond to our community,” Stothert said.
Another provision would recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday, which Schmaderer said was added to respect communities of color and the “hurdles” they’ve had to overcome. The addition will cost the city about $400,000, Stothert has said.
Some opponents balked at the idea of police officers getting a holiday for a day that recognizes when a quarter of a million slaves in Texas learned of their freedom in 1865.
Councilman Vinny Palermo, who represents South Omaha, said that money may be better spent directly in the community. He also suggested that the city consider a floating holiday instead to allow people to celebrate any cultural holiday they wish.