Omaha officials put together diversion program for minor offenses after summer protests

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Zach Gilbert
NEWS EDITOR

Those charged with minor offenses during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests will be able to enter a restorative justice program to avoid criminal conviction. Photo courtesy of Omaha World Herald.

Following last summer’s protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Omaha city leaders and police officials have announced a diversion program for 11 minors and five adults who were charged with low-level offenses such as resisting arrest or disorderly conduct.

“If there’s areas that we can improve upon, this is one of them,” Omaha’s Deputy Chief of police Michele Bang said. “Not everybody has to be in jail. It’s not cost effective and, in the end, it does not solve the problem.”

Those charged with the aforementioned offenses participated in discussions with officers about what led to their arrests, and they were able to voice their grievances about racial injustice, discrimination and economic equity in Omaha as well. Bang was present at these meetings.

“The main thing I took away from [the meetings] was to be authentic and present when a person is speaking and also provide an authentic response to our point of view and why we may have done what we did.”

On Tuesday, Jan. 19, Bang stood alongside Police Chief Todd Schmaderer and Mayor Jean Stothert, among other city officials, to report that Omaha would extend the August trial run of its Restorative Justice Program to a “six-month pilot program.” If successful, the group noted that it would be a permanent diversion path for eligible defendants charged with misdemeanor crimes who wish to avoid criminal convictions.

Those who take part in the restorative justice program would have to take a four-hour class, complete 12 hours of community service, keep a clean criminal record for six months and finally check in with Omaha’s Human Rights and Relations department (which will be overseeing the entire endeavor). If all requirements are followed, charges will be dropped, and the records will be sealed.

“Participants will [also] come away with a map that shows the incident, how they were harmed, how they harmed the community, and some tools that they can take away on how to not have this series of events happen again,” said Asst. Director of Human Rights and Relations Gerald Kuhn.

Officers involved in a protestor’s arrest can participate in this diversion program too, and it has been actively encouraged by those championing the project.

“I want to make sure that the learning is two ways so that citizens can learn from Gerald and the police force, but we learn from them, said Director of Human Rights and Relations Dr. Franklin Thompson.

Bang was equally hopeful of the program’s prospects, especially in terms of improving the public’s relationship with the police force.

“It’s a good thing for officers – we get to see these people not in crisis, not at their worst,” she said.

Given that this decision was made only one day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Thompson additionally noted the timeliness of the program and reiterated that it was “the right thing to do.”

“It’s the thing to do because society is demanding it,” he said. “I do believe it will send a message to the Omaha community that we don’t just tell you and talk down to you, we’re wanting to communicate and have authentic dialogue.”

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