|80 percent of all murders in Nebraska in 2012 were in North Omaha (more than 75 percent black)|
At least 51 people were killed in Nebraska last year, and of those, nearly 80 percent were slain in Omaha.
That statistic has been fairly constant over the years, and it's led some to view Omaha as dangerous while others point to a clustering of the killings in the city's lower income areas and question the factors behind the deaths.
Most Omaha neighborhoods had no homicides in 2012, but that hasn't stopped an image from spreading in the state that the entire city has a problem with violent crime, said John Crank, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
"My wife is a Realtor, and she'll tell you that she has had clients tell her to turn the vehicle around when they go into the city," Crank said. "They say they don't want to live here."
The Nebraska Crime Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice won't release statewide homicide totals until July 1, but media reports show there were at least 51 homicides in 2012. Of those, 40 occurred in Omaha, compared to four in Lincoln.
Many of the Omaha deaths were in lower-income areas near the city's core, and more than half were in northeast Omaha.
A number of factors — from poverty and high unemployment to gangs and poor housing conditions — play into Omaha's high homicide rate, experts agreed.
"That area of northeast Omaha has the highest level of concentrated poverty in the state; it has the highest concentration of unemployment," said Willie Barney, president of the Omaha Empowerment Network, a group committed to revitalizing north Omaha. "If you look at any map across the country that has heavily concentrated poverty, heavily concentrated unemployment — in places like Cincinnati, Newark, Baltimore, Chicago — you'll see the exact same thing."
Three-quarters of Omaha's 2012 homicides were committed with a gun, and half were committed by someone with gang ties, according to Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer.
While Omaha's murder rate has increased from 10 years ago, when the city saw 27 homicides, it has remained relatively steady over the last three years. But some said they're especially troubled by the random nature of many of those killings, like the October death of 16-year-old Montrell Wiseman in a drive-by shooting. Police have said the five charged in the case targeted Wiseman because he was wearing a red sweat shirt, leading them to mistakenly assume he was a member of a rival gang.
"We had gangs when I was growing up; it's the attitudes that have changed," said Nia Williams, 32, a lifelong resident of north Omaha and an outreach specialist with the gang-intervention group Impact One. "Now, even when one of these kids loses a friend to a shooting, they don't even stop to grieve.
"Used to, you'd go to a funeral, and kids would be wearing an RIP pin. Now, they're wearing four or five RIP pins. That's what their legacy is," she said.
The police chief wouldn't speculate on why north Omaha claims the vast majority of the state's violent killings, saying, "I don't see what purpose that serves."
But Schmaderer noted his department and others are taking action to reverse the trend. That includes working closely with north Omaha community groups, seeking legislation to keep convicted violent offenders from receiving prison furloughs and holding "gun amnesty" days in which people can turn over guns to police, no questions asked.
Schmaderer also has restructured the police department since he took over as chief six months ago so that officers are assigned to specific Omaha gangs. The expertise those officers gain is used to help detectives at the scene of gang-involved shootings.Omaha police also attend weekly meetings of Omaha 360, a group under the Omaha Empowerment Network dedicated to finding ways to reduce violence in Omaha. The meetings draw about 50 people each week, representing churches, schools, community groups, law enforcement and local, state and federal politicians.
Police and community group members point hopefully to a summer jobs effort they think shows promise in limiting gun violence.
Barney said the effort is a compilation of hundreds of summer job programs sponsored by dozens of businesses and community groups targeted for north Omaha — where unemployment is estimated as high as 25 percent, compared to less than 4 percent for all of Nebraska.
Since the summer jobs effort began in 2007, gun violence in north Omaha for the months of May, June and July has dropped by half — from 43 gun assault in 2007 to 21 in 2012, according to Barney and police.
The day after a man was chased and gunned down in the Miller Park neighborhood, residents returned to an eerie, practiced normalcy.
Cicadas hummed. Schoolchildren squealed at their first post-summer recess. Heavy trucks zoomed by on North 30th Street.
And a car salesman on his day off relaxed on his front porch, not about to let another homicide drive him indoors. A grandmother walked her 4-year-old grandson down a quiet block. A North High junior, on his final day of summer vacation, painstakingly washed his minivan.
The three live in separate parts of an area north of Mr. C's, east of Metro's Fort Omaha campus and south of Miller Park, which itself has been the regular site of gun-related homicides.
All share a grudging acceptance that violence, in its horror and suddenness, is a part of life here. But the degree to which it shapes their lives depends on their experiences.
Larry Davis is a 50-year-old car salesman who grew up a few houses from the home he lives in now on Laurel Avenue, east of 30th Street on what he called “the peaceful strip.”
Sitting on his front porch, he pointed east of 28th Avenue and said: “It's Vietnam around this block.”
Last summer he was on his porch when a gunbattle started a half-block away. He raced inside and hit the floor.
“These young guys with these guns,” Davis said, “they just don't have a value for life.”
[Pamela] Spencer was hoping Omaha would give her sons that chance when she moved here five years ago to flee Chicago's poverty and violence. She rents a home near 25th Avenue and Fort Street and wishes she could move, given that Omaha's violence “is in one side of town.”
This year, 20 of Omaha's 24 homicides occurred north of Dodge Street; 17 of the 20 were east of Fontenelle Boulevard or 45th Street. Of those, two were in the Miller Park area.
Her family has had to adapt. They don't walk on “certain blocks.” Her young grandchildren are allowed to play outdoors — “in my yard.”
“But I don't trust the neighborhood,” she said. “Bullets. They don't have no name.”
Recent adoption of the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan into the city master plan gives direction and impetus to energizing a stagnated, disinvested area never fully recovered from decades-ago civil disturbance and urban renewal.
Unanimous approval by the Omaha Planning Board and City Council sends a strong signal to public-private funders and developers the plan provides an officially endorsed blueprint for action. What happens next to realize its 30-year vision is up to stakeholders, entrepreneurs, elected officials, movers and shakers.
The Empowerment Network initiated plan, which drew input from residents, business concerns, philanthropists, planning consultants and others, envisions $1.43 billion in redevelopment along key corridors. The initiative puts the Northside in the crosshairs of major transformation as never before.
North Omaha is a much studied, social serviced area suffering disproportionately from poverty, unemployment, underemployment, educational-skill gaps and health problems. As Omaha as a whole has prospered, North O's languished, cut off from the mainstream of commerce and affluence that ranks the city among the nation’s best places to live. For half a century its predominantly black population has seen their community cast as a crime-ridden danger zone and charitable mission district.
Branded as an undesirable place to live or do business in, major investment has bypassed it. Thus, it lacks goods and services, its population is down, its housing stock deteriorated, its vacant, condemned properties number in the thousands. Added to this is a sparse entrepreneurial class and scarcity of entertainment options-attractions.
Planning Director Cunningham says though efforts have “stabilized what was a declining part of town, it doesn't mean there isn't a lot of work to do,” adding. “To say we've stabilized is not great, but it does give us a platform upon which to move forward.”
“If North Omaha is to be a sustainable community, and that means it really takes care of itself and it doesn't need to be a welfare community, we have to have a different mind set,” says Maroney. “That does not mean we forsake those in need, but we have to create the atmosphere by which we not only bring back people with higher incomes but we elevate those people within upward. We must create a community that is generating resources that turn around in the community by creating jobs, creating opportunity.”
Because of its troubles, many residents of Omaha view the North Omaha community as violent, poor, and drug-riddled, where only low-income African American people live. A recent local news report stated the area was "71 percent Black". Despite positive activities directed at improving North Omaha over the years, including those listed above, local media tend to focus on dramatic stories of racial and economic strife within the community.
Recent controversy has focused on a spoof aired by a local radio station in which a popular area radio DJ parodied a recent North Omaha tourism promotion campaign, reportedly saying on air, "Discover miles of mayhem, discover drive-bys, discover gang violence, discover North Omaha."The City Council fought against this portrayal, with North Omaha city councilman Frank Brown demanding an apology from the radio station because "the spoof paints all residents of north Omaha as criminals."
Many institutions within the boundaries of North Omaha reinforce these perceptions as they seek to disassociate with the area despite their proximity within North Omaha. A past example came from an online "information center for current and prospective medical students at Creighton University" reported housing in North Omaha to be "...Older, smaller, more run-down... A little ways from shopping areas. It can be close to Creighton (5-10 minute drive). Many of these neighborhoods have a bad reputation and we recommend looking elsewhere for housing."