How Can We Bridge Trust Between Police and Protestors?

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Elle Love
SENIOR ONLINE REPORTER

The Omaha police department has recently revised its policies on mass arrests of protestors. Photo by Mars Nevada/the Gateway

The Omaha Police Department revised its policy on mass arrests of protestors due to a controversial mass arrest of more than 100 people during a protest on July 25.

Mayor Jean Stothert commented on the revised policy during a press conference on coronavirus briefing, responding to a reporter’s question on whether police should cite and release protestors rather than taking them to jail.

“I asked Chief (Todd) Schmaderer and he did revise their policy for the police on mass arrest,” Stothert said.

Stothert said officers are now required to wear body cameras to take pictures of each individual they cited rather than doing mass arrests.

“They are going to be much more detailed with the reports now, and I think that is a positive thing we have learned and are making policy changes with,” Stothert said.

The Omaha Police Department faced widespread criticism not just for the amount of arrests, but the conditions in the overcrowded cells protestors were held in during the COVID-19 outbreak.

UNO criminology professor Justin Nix, Ph. D., said the new policy will have officers think through what they are arresting protestors for and if their arrest is the best way to address the violations.

“Across the country when the protests have broken out, [police] agencies have struggled to keep peace and order,” Nix said. “There was backlash about the way the police responded to protests and whether their responses had actually agitated the protesters.”

Nix said a lot of officers in police departments across the country have never dealt with large-scale demonstrations, and without a lot of direction and training to go on their responses have been met with heavy criticisms.

“Moving forward, agencies have learned that mass arrests are not the best way to go, especially during the pandemic,” Nix said.

The Omaha Police Department has also posted their press release on Twitter addressing their protest arrest policy, as well as other new policies to define restrictions that organizers of protests must follow.

“While it is the aim of the Omaha Police Department to avoid arrests, including mass arrests, during a protest, law violations may result in arrest…Mass arrests remain an option after being reviewed by a Captain,” according to the news release.

The Omaha Police Department has also included newer policies like volume control and disturbing the peace.

Although 93% of the Black Lives Matter Protests have been peaceful, according to a report by non-governmental organization Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED), the biggest challenge both protestors and officers deal with are the agitators that commit unlawful actions, taking away from the main premise of these protests.

Nix said it can be potentially difficult for officers to distinguish between agitators and protestors on a large scale, especially if the location is in a busy area like the intersection on 72nd and Dodge.

“I think it’s just valuable for people to understand that, you know, when they’re engaging in a protest, they have rights, but also responsibilities,” said UNO political science professor Brett Kyle, Ph. D.

Kyle said that protestors do have the right to peacefully assemble but there are also restrictions in place such as obstructing traffic.

“Depending on exactly where you’re gathering, there may be some restrictions or the organizers of a protest might need a permit depending on whether they’re going to be constructing a temporary stage,” Kyle said “But otherwise, gathering in a park is generally pretty protected.”

“Even if the mood is peaceful, there are already agitators out and it can be hard for the two parties, both police and public, to communicate with each other effectively,” Nix said.

However, one of the suggested solutions to the issue between protestors and police officers is to cooperate and bridge communications.

Nix said his research deals with police legitimacy, which is described as a two-way street where citizens want to be treated respectfully by officers while officers want citizens to allow them to perform their job as public servants.

“It’s important for officers [to understand] when going into a protest that it doesn’t have to be personal,” Nix said. “It’s not so much that people are out there protesting you and what you’ve done but addressing larger societal issues, and that’s certainly fair.”

Nix said sometimes officers do feel frustrated seeing that the realities of their work do not often match what is reported on the news and what protestors are addressing, especially when working to patrol protests.

“But to the extent, officers should keep in mind that this isn’t a personal attack,” Nix said. “They have a job to do, and that the job would be easier if they keep that stuff in check and focus on what their tasks are.”

Nix said in one instance during the first and second day of protests, there was an incident between a black protestor and a white police officer where they got into an exchange before it ended with the two hugging it out.

“Much like ‘we hope that you respect that we’re here to voice our frustrations with what’s going on with society.’ If everyone preferably went into it with that way of thinking, I think things may play out better, but it’s not the way it is,” Nix said.

In a perfect world, to potentially address the distrust between police and protestors, one of the first steps suggested would be to let the police department know ahead of time where and when the protest and will be taking place. But what are the clear restrictions that protestors need to follow when demonstrating First Amendment Rights?

Nix said some of the clear restrictions include banning the use of contraband like eggs, paint or water bottles filled with unknown substances, which many organizers have expressed as rules in their organized protests.

“Before we find some middle ground, we should allow people to listen to one another,” Nix said. “I would encourage everyone to keep an open mind and to hear what other people have to say here, especially with experiences different from yours.”

There is a long way to go before police policies are reformed, but Nix said he feels optimistic.

“I’ve seen a lot of progress in the last five years since Ferguson,” Nix said. “Here we are again, five years, and you know people were outraged enough again to take it to the streets—and risk their lives to take their frustrations to the streets,” Nix said. “Anyone who dismisses this matter as ‘fake news’ or as ‘overblown,’ I just don’t see the argument for that.”

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