This is a collaboration between The Omaha Reader and Flatwater Free Press.
Sgt. Aaron Hanson, a former president of Omaha’s police union, used excessive force when he kneed an already-handcuffed Omaha man, the Omaha Police Department’s Safety Review Board unanimously decided in 2018. The board recommended a low-level punishment.
But that never happened. Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer overruled the safety review board, a move that Schmaderer has made only twice in recent years, say Greg Gonzalez and George Merithew, both members of the review board at the time.
Schmaderer, through a spokesman, said he’s overruled the board more often than that. The police department declined to tell The Reader and the Flatwater Free Press how many times he’s made that move. While it’s not regular for Schmaderer to overturn review board decisions, it’s “not uncommon either,” said Omaha Police Department Public Information Officer Neal Bonacci.
After a phone conversation between the police chief and John Wells, then the police union president, Schmaderer decided that Hanson’s use of force was justified, Wells said.
The 2017 incident has resurfaced during a contentious race for Douglas County Sheriff that pits Hanson against Gonzalez, a deputy police chief at the time. Merithew, too, ran for the office.
Hanson and his allies say it’s an attempt by Gonzalez to score political points off a four-year-old review board decision they believe was poorly handled from the start due to conflicts of interest.
“They’re trying to politicize an incident for gain and to take Aaron Hanson down,” Wells said.
Omaha Police Department officials have questioned the accuracy of Gonzalez’s and Merithew’s version of events. They say they can’t specify the alleged inaccuracies unless the former members of the review board sign release forms.
Both Gonzalez and Merithew declined to do so.
Omaha police officials also say they will open a theft investigation after learning The Reader and Flatwater Free Press obtained dash cam footage and documentation of the incident.
Gonzalez, Merithew and others say the safety review board’s ruling matters, both in the upcoming election and in how Omahans view their police force.
It matters that Hanson used excessive force, they say. It also matters that the Omaha police chief overruled the review board’s decision.
“I don’t think the police can police themselves,” said Sen. Terrell McKinney, who represents parts of North Omaha and plans to reintroduce a bill to establish more independent oversight of police. “If the chief is going to overturn a situation like this, what else has he overturned?”
It started with a traffic stop. At around 8 p.m. on Aug. 31, 2017, OPD gang unit officers pulled over a Saturn sedan near North Ridge Drive and Craig Avenue, according to a police department spokesman and the footage itself. The car’s occupants were connected to recent gang activity, Hanson said in an interview.
Hanson, a North High graduate who became an officer in 1996 and rose from patrol to gang unit sergeant, first appears 90 seconds into the police cruiser dashboard footage from that evening.
The video shows five officers and five people handcuffed or otherwise detained in a driveway in Florence.
One person, in cuffs, is leaning against the hood of the police cruiser.
At the video’s seven-minute mark, the handcuffed person tries to stand. An officer physically stops him.
Hanson leads the person away from the hood of the cruiser.
“You’re in my hood,” the handcuffed person says to Hanson. Then the police sergeant knees him in the leg and watches him crumple on the ground.
After the incident, Hanson’s supervisors reviewed it and found his methods justified, Hanson said. His supervisor at the time, Ken Kanger, could not be reached by The Reader and Flatwater Free Press.
But use-of-force incidents are also reviewed by the department’s safety review board. The three-member group, made up of a lieutenant, the training lieutenant and chaired by a deputy chief, oversees a variety of police safety issues.
“While animated the subject did not become verbally abusive toward Sgt. Hanson until after Sgt. Hanson struck the subject,” Merithew wrote in a report obtained by The Reader and Flatwater Free Press. “It appears that Sgt. Hanson lost his temper and attacked the subject.”
OPD’s use of force policy reads “officers will use only that amount of force which is objectively reasonable to take a subject into custody, or otherwise bring an incident under control, while protecting the safety of the officer and others.”
At the time, Merithew, then an OPD lieutenant, and Catherine Milone, also a lieutenant, were both new to the safety review board. Milone could not be reached for this story.
Milone initially saw no reason to recommend discipline, according to police documents. But she hadn’t seen the video, Merithew and Gonzalez said.
When all three board members watched the video together in Gonzalez’s office they unanimously agreed Hanson had used excessive force.
The board recommended a relatively minor punishment: A “job performance interview” that Hanson would have with his supervisor.
One outside expert says the safety review board got it right. After reviewing the dash cam video and reading board documents, Ian Adams, a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor, said it doesn’t appear the person was resisting.
While he noted he doesn’t have all the facts — there’s no body cam footage of the event, for example — Adams said if the person seemed like they were going to run, an officer should have put him in the cruiser.
“It runs against general police practice to use force against a suspect in handcuffs when they are simply passively resisting, if at all,” Adams said. “And so I could see why this raised eyebrows internally.”
In an interview, Hanson said he used the knee strike, designed to briefly immobilize a person’s legs, because the suspect seemed ready to run. If the suspect had run, Hanson said, it would have created more problems, especially since the traffic stop occurred in an area affiliated with the gang.
He said there was a handgun found in the car and ammunition in the suspect’s pants.
“I stand by my decision,” Hanson said. “I think that day could have had a tragic outcome had I not used good judgment and an appropriate and minimal amount of force to bring that situation under control. I think I made the right decision. I’m not going to second guess myself.”
Had the review board thought the infraction was serious, they could have handed the investigation to the department’s internal affairs unit. Instead, they recommended relatively light discipline for a relatively minor policy infraction that didn’t appear to require more scrutiny, Merithew and Gonzalez said.
But it did get more scrutiny.
Schmaderer, through a police spokesman, said he passed the incident onto internal affairs and the department’s use-of-force experts who said no policy was violated. At that point, the police chief intervened, the spokesman said.
Wells, then the Omaha Police Association president, said he called Schmaderer and asked him to reverse the review board’s findings. He also requested that the police chief remove Merithew from the board. If he didn’t do so, the union would look into legal action, Wells said.
On Feb. 18, 10 days after the safety review board recommended punishment for Hanson, Gonzalez appears to have backed off.
According to an email shared by current Omaha police union president Tony Conner, Gonzalez said there was “no violation of policy” and the situation “ended well.”
Conner said the email proves that, at the time of the incident, Gonzalez actually believed that Hanson’s use of force was justified.
Gonzalez said it proves the opposite. Gonzalez sent it after the police chief said he would not uphold the board’s decision, he said. The situation ended well because no one was seriously hurt. His email still raised concerns about the use of force, he said.
Wells said the review board’s decision had more to do with Merithew’s animosity toward Hanson than it did the events on the video.
Earlier that year, Merithew had asked Hanson to recommend him for a position Hanson was stepping down from – a board position with the city’s police and fire retirement system. Hanson, who had beaten Merithew in multiple elections for the position, declined, Wells said.
In Wells’ view, Merithew was trying to retaliate.
“It seems to me that people are taking decisions [Hanson] made as a union president and trying to weaponize them and then trying to get a pound of flesh after the fact,” Wells said. “And this is (in 2018) towards the end of my tenure. And I said, ‘By the grace of God go I, I’m not going to allow that to happen.’”
Omaha’s police chief did overrule the decision in early February 2018. He then removed Merithew from the safety review board that March, Gonzalez said.
Merithew has since sued the city for wrongful termination. He retired in July 2020 before he could be fired for issues including using racially insensitive language. He says those claims were purposely misconstrued.
Merithew also ran against Hanson in the Republican primary for Douglas County Sheriff. He made headlines in Omaha after getting ticketed going 107 mph in a 65 mph zone on Interstate 80 near 42nd Street.
In separate interviews, Merithew and Gonzalez argued that, at the time, they were troubled by Hanson’s excessive use of force. But they said they were more troubled by Schmaderer overturning the safety review board’s decision.
They said that, during their collective time on the safety review board, only two decisions were overruled. One case involved Hanson, they said. The other involved Wells, also a former union president.
Both Wells and Schmaderer deny this.
“Does that look like perfectly nice conduct?” Merithew asked about the video. “Whether you can say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, that’s the whole point…So in context of why I’m talking about it, is simply to show that Todd Schmaderer was coming after me for doing the right thing.”
Said Gonzalez: “Using force on someone in handcuffs, it’s a rarity. The only time that’s justified is if you’re actively fighting.”
Asked about the police department’s reaction, Gonzalez said: “What are they freaking out about?”
He then answered his own question. “They don’t want the video getting out.”
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.
Subscribe for free
Get stories like this delivered to your inbox every Friday.