Protesters rally for police auditor

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September 29th, 2011

Omaha, NE – A large crowd gathered outside Omaha City Hall on Wednesday to renew the call for independent police oversight.

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Mark Welsch, left, stood before a crowd of over a hundred people outside City Hall Wednesday. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“There’s over a hundred people here, give yourself a hand,” Mark Welsch announced to a cheering crowd, as speaker after speaker took the stand. Welsch is a coordinator for Nebraskans for Peace, which helped organize the rally. Other speakers included representatives of several Omaha groups, including Black Men United, the Nebraska branch of the ACLU and NAACP, local churches and former state senator Ernie Chambers. Community members also spoke and cheered along.

“When you’ve got 11 police officers on one man, and this man is not struggling, all 11 should be fired,” said Benny Clark to applause and shouts of “That’s right!” Referring to a recently-released video showing a man, 35-year-old Robert Wagner, beaten by a group of Omaha police officers in a hospital parking lot, after he allegedly punched an officer, Clark said it’s time Omaha stops “sugar-coating” the issue.

A protester holds up a sign at a rally outside the Omaha-Douglas Civic Center. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“Because here’s the problem,” he said, “when you have 11 people sworn to uphold the laws of this land, and they have the badge and the gun. They become jury, executioner and the judge. They can’t do that.”

Omaha Police Chief Alex Hayes has begun the process of terminating two officers in the video after an investigation. But Clark said if other officers allowed violent behavior to occur, they should be held accountable for that.

Willie Hamilton was one of the lead organizers of the rally, and the president of Black Men United. He said the call for police oversight is not just about one incident. It’s a matter of trust between the community and the police department, he said, that has been degraded by incidents of racial profiling and an internal review process that doesn’t encourage transparency. He also said it’s inextricably linked to violence within the community.

“If the community is not giving answers to the police, then violence is through the roof,” he said. “We have a disconnect, we have a trust factor, when it comes to the community and the interactions within the community. So until we get police violence under control, how do we expect to go into the community and get that under control?”

Protesters listen as speaker after speaker takes the stand outside city hall. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

The last time Omaha had a police auditor in place was in 2006. Tristan Bonn was fired by then Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, and the position has remained unfilled. Spokesperson for the Omaha Police Department, Darci Tierney, told KVNO News all complaints are taken seriously by the department, and if a problem exists, they want to know about it. Hamilton said police oversight should be independent. And he made a concerted effort to remind the audience the problem is not limited to one community or color.

“It’s a wide range of folks; it’s a community,” he said. “Stop trying to isolate it and put this over in north Omaha because we as black people talk about it.” Hamilton urged people, of all races and colors, to get involved.

“You know it’s happening, get involved,” he said. “And stop making this just a black and brown thing, because it’s not. This is a city-wide problem. It just so happens that it happens disproportionately in minority communities.”

Councilman Ben Gray has proposed amending the city charter to mandate a public auditor. If approved, that would be placed on the ballot in next year’s primary. But Hamilton said that would be time-consuming and costly. And he said the city has the ability to restore the auditor position immediately.

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