The sound of a helicopter cut through the brisk fall air as police surrounded Annette Harris’ red brick home. Around 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 21, Omaha police arrived looking for a carjacking suspect who had abandoned a vehicle near her house, according to police and tow truck records.
Police, thinking the suspect was inside Harris’ home, kicked and pounded on her door, damaging the handle and cracking the frame, she said. When Harris and her 14-year-old daughter told them no one else was home, she said officers accused them of lying and hiding Harris’ 27-year-old son, who had a non-felony warrant.
After an hour and no arrests, the police left, Harris said, but her fear – and her anger at being accused of something she says she didn’t do – hasn’t gone away. Six days after the incident, she filed a formal complaint with the Omaha Police Department.
“I told myself if I don’t file a complaint then they’re going to keep treating people this way,” she said. “I want accountability.”
If the police dismiss Harris’ complaint, she knows she can appeal to a civilian-led board meant to oversee the department.
But that board holds its meetings in private, has no way to subpoena witnesses or directly discipline a police officer – and in reality almost never considers a case like Harris’.
Omaha’s Citizen Complaint Review Board has reviewed a total of seven complaints against police in the past four years — including none during 2021 or 2022.
By contrast: Lincoln’s board reviewed 34 complaints in 2022 alone, Kansas City’s reviewed 111 during that calendar year and Chicago’s saw more than 1,000, though other nearby cities, including Minneapolis, look more like Omaha.
“I think it’s safe to say that Omaha stacks pretty low in terms of providing real accountability,” said John Shjarback, a policing expert and law professor at New Jersey’s Rowan University, who noted it’s sometimes difficult to compare cities. “I think it’s safe to say that it is more symbolic.”
State Sen. Terrell McKinney, a Democrat representing northeast Omaha, has introduced a bill in the Nebraska Legislature that would add several oversight measures to police departments. He’s done so in part because he thinks Omaha’s current oversight board is “just a waste of time.”
Omaha’s Citizen Complaint Review Board was established in 2014 by Mayor Jean Stothert, a Republican, who appoints the board’s members. There was no civilian police oversight during the tenure of Mayor Jim Suttle, the Democrat who preceded Stothert. Mayor Mike Fahey, a Democrat, fired Omaha’s last police auditor in 2006 after she released a report critical of police.
Questions sent to the mayor’s office about the board were directed to Travis Justice, the current board chair. Justice said he’s satisfied with the low number of complaints, which he says have been consistent since he joined the board in 2016. The low number is a testament to the good work of Chief Todd Schmaderer and the department, Justice said.
“I would be alarmed if we saw large fluctuations in the number of cases we are being presented with, but we just aren’t seeing that,” he said in an email.
In the past, Stothert has also said she’s unconcerned by the oversight board’s low number of complaints, including in 2016 when a majority of the board resigned partly over its lack of work.
“I still think the system that we have is the best system that there could be,” Stothert said in 2020. “I think that the worst thing that we could do would be to let a board of citizens that are not trained impose discipline. I believe that is absolutely the worst thing because it takes the power to run the department away from the chief.”
Omaha’s seven-member board is required to meet quarterly, but its meetings are not public. The board is also required to host quarterly public forums to educate people on its process and what constitutes a reviewable case. No such forums are mentioned in any annual reports since 2020, when the board was first required to list a synopsis of meetings.
If the board disagrees with Omaha police’s decision on a case – which Justice said has happened but declined to explain, citing a confidentiality agreement – the board can only make recommendations to the mayor. Under the Omaha police union’s contract, any disciplinary action must happen within 100 days of the incident.
Richard Westcott, who served as board chair for three years until his resignation in October 2021, said the lack of complaints to review frustrated him at times.
Board members did host community education forums, he said, but that outreach didn’t lead to more cases.
“I just felt that we could have had a lot more,” he said. “(Otherwise) you don’t have any problems here in town, which you don’t believe for a minute.”
Occasionally Westcott wished the board could dig deeper, he said, but most of the time he felt members had ample information. The police department seemed to take the board seriously, he said, like when it implemented a recommendation to ensure all SWAT team members wear body-worn cameras.
Roger Garcia, now chair of the Douglas County Board of Commissioners, served as chair of the Citizen Complaint Review Board prior to Westcott. Garcia said he also found the police to be forthcoming with evidence, like an officer’s personnel record or video footage, and interested in the board’s findings. But he said a review of the board can’t hurt.
“Overall, I believe that the Mayor’s office and police department have an interest in genuinely supporting the” review board, Garcia said in an emailed statement, “it’s just a matter of keeping with the times and always trying to improve upon everything we do, alongside constant engagement with the citizens for which our services are intended for at the local level.”
Omaha’s civilian oversight does not stack up well when compared to most national best practices, said Sharon Fairley, a University of Chicago law professor who has helped create police oversight bodies in Chicago and served as general counsel and administrator of similar boards.
Because Omaha’s board can only review appeal cases, its scope is limited, Fairley said. “They are a weaker form of oversight,” she said of appeals-based boards like Omaha’s. “There’s no question.”
Omaha’s board is also dependent on the police department for information. In good oversight models, citizens have direct, unfettered access to police records, Fairley said. The body’s meetings and findings should also be public, she said.
Omaha’s board seems representative, Fairley said, requiring “diverse” members who are “reflective of the social, ethnic and economic components” of the city. But Fairley wonders how that looks in practice. For example: How many members trust police? How many distrust police? You need both, she said.
One positive, Fairly said: Members receive a minimum eight hours of training in police practices, policies and procedures, as well as go on two police ride-alongs.
It’s hard to know what the low number of complaints says about the review board, Fairley said. Maybe there aren’t many complaints to the police department itself, though a 2020 Reader story showed the police then averaged roughly 200 per year. The board’s 2021 report mentions that civilian reports had declined.
Fairley wonders: Do people know the board exists? Do they think it has enough power? Do they trust it?
Justice thinks more Omahans do need to know of the board’s existence. While the public education forums were largely on hiatus since 2020 due to COVID-19, “there will be a concentrated effort to increase these forums moving forward,” he said.
He does think that Omaha’s system is strong enough, though “change can be good if it’s well thought out and not reactionary.” he said. “As a board, we welcome discussions with the Mayor’s office and Police Department on appropriate changes.”
Other boards like Omaha’s — including in Seattle, Indianapolis and Toledo, Ohio — do allow public meetings, share public documents and grant citizens subpoena power. Some cities, like Chicago or Kansas City, go further by giving boards authority to do their own investigations. Still others, like Denver, have multiple levels of independent oversight.
Implementing stronger oversight can sometimes cause pushback. A police union lawsuit stalled St. Louis from implementing stronger citizen oversight. In Minneapolis, a new oversight board faced criticism for reviewing only a small fraction of complaints that citizens submitted.
One easy fix: Make it simple to file a complaint or contact the board, Fairley said. Good boards usually have a phone number or email address and allow citizens to submit claims online, she said.
Currently the only way to contact Omaha’s board is by submitting claims directly to the board’s P.O. Box, a new addition in the summer of 2020. The Omaha Police Department also sends a letter to complainants, like Harris, who make a complaint to police. It informs them that they can file a “request for review” from the civilian oversight board, said Lt. Neal Bonacci, OPD spokesperson.
Why aren’t there more complaints? Bonacci said it’s a reflection of the department’s good work.
“I would say that our Internal Affairs Unit does a thorough job and takes their investigations very seriously,” he said. “Due to their diligence, citizens seem to be satisfied with the outcome of those investigations.”
So far Harris has been unsatisfied. She said the home security footage she shared with the police department corroborates her story. The Flatwater Free Press viewed the footage shared and saw only Harris, her daughter and police, plus a figure on the street at 9:27 p.m., a person who appears to be a foot shorter and much smaller than Harris’ 6-foot-6, 265-pound son.
Bonacci told the Flatwater Free Press late Thursday that the police department had mailed a letter to Harris responding to her complaint, but Harris said she hadn’t yet received it.
Harris said she would trust that her complaint against police would be dealt with fairly if there were stronger civilian oversight of the police department.
“I don’t understand why they would have other police officers making a decision about police officers when most of the time, they’re going to stick together anyway,” she said.
Stories like Harris’ bother Qasim Shabazz Asad, co-founder of the Black Agenda Alliance, a North Omaha advocacy group. In 2024, the Alliance plans programming to encourage more North Omaha kids to grow up to become officers. The group wants to start educating more people in North Omaha about what police can and can’t do, as well as what citizens can do to hold officers accountable in law-abiding ways.
When Shabazz Asad learned about the Citizen Complaint Review Board, he was surprised it existed in Omaha. It sounded like something he’d like to be a part of.
“We’re not against the police. We support the police,” Shabazz Asad said. “We just don’t support a lot of the things that they’ve done.”
After Harris’ encounter with police in October, she said she and her daughter couldn’t sleep. Her daughter had nightmares of being shot by officers. Harris, a Black mother, says she worries about that happening to her children. To have her fear become her child’s fear makes Harris feel like a failure as a parent.
“(My daughter) said ‘I want to move out of Omaha. I want to move immediately,’” Harris said. “She’ll never trust police officers again. And what if she really needs help?”