Mayor downplays Omaha’s most violent year

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Phil Brown
OPINION EDITOR

2015 was Omaha’s most violent year ever in terms of homicides. When data began being collected in 1967, there had only been 11 homicides, and in the decades since, there have been no more than 45 such killings in a single year. 2015 changed all that, becoming an ugly milestone.

However, this hasn’t really seemed to register on the minds of Omaha’s citizens. Perhaps it’s due to the geographical distribution of the deaths: only one of them occurred west of 108th street, and the highest concentration of deaths was in North Omaha, a portion of town that most Omahans are comfortable ignoring completely. And nobody is more anxious to down-play the deaths than the city’s own leadership, especially Mayor Jean Stothert.

Photo Courtesy of ketv.com
Photo Courtesy of ketv.com

In the Mayor’s State of the City address last Friday, Stothert tried to present an image of Omaha as a land of milk and honey, citing “levels of opportunity and prog-ress that are nearly unequalled in our history and our future is one of further growth and great potential.” The city’s recent history certainly is unequalled: it hasn’t managed to kill quite so many of its citizens ever before.

The Mayor then touted Omaha’s standing in such rankings as “second-best city for recreation”, “number one best city to live in among midwest cities,” without sharing the publications or methodologies behind such rankings.

One very concrete ranking is that Nebraska’s black homicide rate is the second-highest in the nation due to the latest statistics from the Violence Policy Center, and with Omaha making up the vast majority of those homicides, is by extension not situated well in the national scheme of things.

“Our just released 2015 crime stats are encouraging,” Stothert said, going on to mention the areas Omaha had improved their crime statistics, warming up to the bloody mile-stone by citing modest decreases in other violent crime categories.

While slight decreases in crimes such as robbery and burglary are obviously great, using them to obscure the calamity of 50 homicides in one year is profoundly flawed.

Stothert dedicated a couple of sentences in her pages-long speech to the most deaths the city has seen in history, and chose to write them off as a disappointment that didn’t mar or change the outlook of the city
at all. In fact, the Mayor explicitly voiced her desire to minimize the deaths, saying “our focus remains steadfast that 50 grieving families will not define the City of Omaha.”

The city is intent on marginalizing these grieving families to serve their own narrative: maintaining the definition of “second-best city for recreation” and “number one best city to live in among mid-west cities” is demonstrably more important for city leadership than dealing with the reality of dead bodies and grieving families.

Before the Address, Stothert reflected a similar view in an interview reported in the Omaha World-Herald.

“These gang mem-bers have absolutely no respect for human life at all. … They’re killing each other,” Stothert said about the killings. “It just shows it’s a community problem. The police are doing what they can.”

“It’s a community problem” means “it’s not my problem if it’s not my community.” A city only concerned on whether it retains its “second-best city for recreation” rating doesn’t particularly care if other people are being gunned down in a part of town they don’t have to live in, work in or travel through.

As long as the narrative can be shaped to focus on “those gang members” instead of “our city,” violence is just unfortunate, and requires no action or thought beyond policing from city leadership.

As a city, we’ve chosen to elect leaders who bury their heads in the sand of rankings from “national news organizations and industry publications,” who stick their fingers in their ears and mumble the mantras of “opportunity” and “potential” to drown out the cries of grieving families.

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