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Omaha Magazine

Dismantling Gun Violence, One Week at a Time

Aug 22, 2023 02:54PM ● By Julius Fredrick
Empowerment Network Founder and President Willie Barney.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

On 52nd Street, just west of Ames Avenue, the whir of passing vehicles idled to a hum; a sequence of blinking turn signals lined the street before filing into Sprague Plaza. As 2pm drew near, the ‘thump’ of car doors and snatches of conversation punctuated the thick summer air, the Omaha Home for Boy’s south campus alive with community members—some in suits or blouses, some in graphic tees, others in uniform—as they converged on the Wurdeman Conference Center. The hour arrived with a hush settling over the hall, around 80 participants in total. Empowerment Network founder and Omaha 360 organizer Willie Barney strode parallel a projection screen, rows of faces, familiar and new, radiating from the podium.

“Thank you all for joining us for this week’s Omaha 360 meeting. Let’s get started with introductions,” he announced.

For 15 years and counting, a crosshatch of Omaha citizenry has stratified to form a unique community flagstone: the Omaha 360 VIP (Violence Intervention and Prevention) Collaborative. The weekly, hour-long gatherings commence with names and statements of affiliation, a microphone bobbing through the crowd as it’s passed hand from hand:

“…representing Gifford Park Neighborhood association.”

“…representing the Native Omaha Days Organizing Committee.

“…with the Jewish Community Relations Council.”

“…with the Boys and Girls Club.”

“…Set Me Free Project; human trafficking education and prevention.

“…Metro Omaha Tobacco Action Coalition.”

“…Mayor’s Office.” 

“…National Council of Negro Women.”

“…just trying to bring the community together.” 

Enhancing educational opportunities, career outlooks, rates of home ownership, cultural engagement and enrichment, and access to family and community resources for North Omaha residents (and over time, greater Omaha) are all key tenets of the Empowerment Network’s ‘7-Step Plan’—to date, drawing together nearly 500 organizations to enact it. Omaha 360 was, in part, born from one of the plan’s primary goals: “living in a safe and secure community.”  The model has proven highly effective toward this end, garnering national headlines in 2023 for notching steady progress in its fight against violent crime where many major cities have stalled.

“I think that speaks volumes to the culture that’s been created. Early 2000s, especially with a violence-displaying felon ramming vehicles, things like that, there was a time period where officers would’ve discharged weapons; that’s one column, for years now, on not the way we do business,” affirmed Lt. Marcus Taylor of the Omaha Police Department, concluding his report detailing an armed carjacking suspect who’d struck OPD cruisers in a an effort to escape arrest. “We were glad to see that end with a peaceful resolution—really happy to see it was peaceful.”

Lt. Taylor reported on behalf of the OPD’s Gang Activity and Prevention Unit, while officers representing the Northeast and Northwest Precincts, and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, shared details similar occurrences. 

The briefings centered on youth gun violence, Omaha hardly immune to the devastating upswing in youth-related crime nationwide—part of a 50% increase in gunfire-related deaths in those 18 and under between 2019 to 2021, per an April report by the Pew Research Center. While the news is often grim, it’s this transparency between authorities and residents, among other reforms recommended in 2015, that’s born an inverse statistic: a 50% decrease in complaints against Omaha police.

The meeting concluded on a positive note, preparing for July’s 24th biennial Native Omaha Days Festival and Parade—a week-long celebration of the history, culture, and community spirit of North Omaha—with security measures and volunteers front of mind.

“Thank you Willie and thank you Omaha 360,” began Native Omaha Days Organizing Committee spokesperson Vicki Quaites-Ferris. “Again, if it were not for the collaboration established, probably back in 2008, between Omaha 360 and the Northeast Precinct, the parade and Native Omaha Days celebrations would not be near as safe…”

Omaha 360, 2008

“Let me back up a little bit. I moved to Omaha in 2000,” Barney said. “Before that, I kind of moved around the country, looking at different things that were happening primarily in the African American community. I had a chance through my corporate job to travel to Chicago and Miami and New York and LA…and no matter what I saw, it was pretty consistent that our communities were left behind. And because of that, poverty, unemployment, and in many cases, gun violence, was concentrated in some of these communities…”

Over a period of years, I started to track the data and do research and look at different models. I started to have conversations […] to figure out how to work together to improve some of these conditions. So we started to have some meetings around in the Black community as far as how we could work together. We met for the better part of nine months […] and we launched the Empowerment Plan in April of 2007. In July of 2007, we had, I think it was 42 shootings in 30 days. So we had this huge plan and strategy long term for working with the community—but we recognized really quickly that we weren’t going to be able to do a whole lot unless we addressed specifically the gun violence.”

Barney credits author George Fraser and then-Senator Barack Obama as powerful influences that “led up to me finally stepping out in faith to move on it.” While meetings still began at 2pm, the 24th and Lake Street setting was modest, with just seven individuals convening under the more general Violence Intervention Prevention Group. However, by 2008, the assembly had swelled to more than 30 members, and Barney tapped the Omaha Home for Boys for additional space. Perhaps inspired by the fanning, lecture hall arrangement, the name “Omaha 360” was officially adopted in January 2009.   

As Omaha 360 matured, Barney approached and implored the Omaha Police Department to attend. With the help of “a few key people,” including Deputy Chief John Ewing,  Chief Tom Warren, and Sergeant Teresa Negron, OPD got on board—though not without some convincing.

“Initially, when I said [to Chief Warren],‘We need you to come to a community meeting,’ he said, ‘I don’t really want to do that, because typically when the police department comes to a community meeting, we’re to blame and we get the fingers pointed back and forth, so I don’t necessarily want to,’” Barney explained. “I asked him if he’d just give me a chance to facilitate a meeting where we think we can make it more productive, and eventually he agreed. And that’s exactly what happened […] and because of that, it started to build relationship and trust.” 

 Lt. Taylor—a 19-year veteran with the force and cofounder of the Black Police Officers Association of Omaha—recalls these early years vividly. The intensity and scale of violent crime and the disconnect between law enforcement and residents were in sharp relief.

“Going back to the history, during that violent time period…I was in the gang unit at that time, and that time was a different era in Omaha,” Taylor said. “There was a lot of mistrust, and I think that was due to a lack of relationships, and just even culture-wise how we went about policing. You know, it was just different.”

As police attendance became regular, and tough conversations steeled the resolve of officers and community members in kind, a newfound alliance took shape.

“One of the biggest things I’d credit 360 and the Empowerment Network for, is the power of collaboration and synergy—realizing we all wanted the same goals, we all had the same big heart for the community, and we wanted this community to be safe,” Taylor said.

Today, the impact of the collaborative can’t be overlooked. The city’s homicide rate plummeted to a 20-year low in 2018—at 4.5 homicides per 100,000 people, as compared to 2007’s 10.3 per 100,000—and Omaha Police Department data revealed shooting victims more than halved between 2009 and 2022. Whilst the aftershocks of the COVID pandemic saw a spike in activity, percentages of total violent crime are down 15% from last year as of June 2023.

Taylor attributes much of this success to a more “holistic” approach to policing, counting “probation officers, faith leaders, and volunteers”as essential to the transformation.

“Our homicide rates are still at 100% clearance rate, and that’s not a police stat, that’s a community stat,” he said.

On whether Omaha has uncovered a ‘sweet spot’ in the hard versus soft on crime debate, Empowerment Network Vice President of Community Collaboratives Jonathan Chapman emphasized nuance and the varied, often conditioned notions surrounding the issue.

“When people come to 360 for the first time, they very clearly have one perspective that oftentimes is very negative. And we live in a day and age where a lot of people’s perceptions are determined by their consumption of media,” Chapman noted. 

“But what usually ends up happening is when somebody comes to 360 […] you can see their perception begin to change when they really begin to understand the level of collaboration that exists here in Omaha.”

Omaha Police Department’s Public Information Officer, Lieutenant Neal Bonacci, concurred.

“It’s not just North or South Omaha, there’s people from West Omaha. There’s faith based leaders, there’s all sorts of different people from all different backgrounds—that’s the beauty of it,” Bonacci added. “I think that’s the difference between what Omaha is doing and a lot of other major cities where you are seeing these spikes and upward trends in crime.”

While strengthened relations between residents and officers has been pivotal to Omaha 360’s efforts, the police department is one of many voices, and eyes, that enable the collaborative’s sweeping yet dexterous hand in preventing violence. Omaha 360 Director Ricky Smith empathized that the model can’t thrive in isolation.

“It’s important that all the partners understand, maybe even the new cities coming to the table, it’s not just 360. You have to have a foundation, you have to have an Empowerment Network. You can’t just have one small piece and make it work,” he said. “You’ve got to have that foundation where people know that they can come to, and trust you’re working in several different capacities in several areas.”

Weekly meetings mean 360 attendees can confront more than annual or monthly trends, but identify at-risk youth in near realtime, quickly connecting them to individuals and/or organizations uniquely positioned to help. For some, that means enrolling in educational, leadership, and career advancement organizations like Step-Up Omaha! or the Omaha Youth 360 program launched last year. For those already mired in the criminal underworld, programs like YouTurn second chances.

The latter is overseen by the aforementioned Teresa Negron, who now serves as YouTurn’s executive director since 2019 after retiring from her role as an OPD homicide detective after nearly 23 years on the force. The nonprofit utilizes the Cure Violence Global Health Model, which takes an epidemiological view of violence—like a physician diagnosing and treating an infectious disease. Mediation and conflict resolution, school and community outreach, and one-on-one case management are just a few of the methods employed to reach ‘highest risk’ individuals (those already involved or likely to become involved in gang or regular criminal activity).

“My whole team does canvassing, but part of the street team’s goal is they’re going to hotspots where things are actively happening,” she explained. “When there’s a shooting that happens in our target area, within 24 hours our team is there onsite, talking to people, doing the things that we need to do to try to bring the temperature down, right?”

In addition to overseeing YouTurn’s street, school, and conflict mediation teams, Negron has remained involved with the Empowerment Network—and as one of the original liaisons between the OPD and the collaborative, Omaha 360.

“I think of Omaha 360 as a networking opportunity for all these different, freestanding organizations to come together and have discussions,” Negron continued. “When we first started, the police department would come in and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this area that’s a hotspot,’ and Omaha 360 would get a ‘neighborhood champion,’ that would say ‘Hey, we’ll be the champion for people to meet, talk to law enforcement’…the community could express themselves about what was happening in their specific neighborhood, and solutions came out of that. [Then determining ] which organization has the ability to do whatever the need was, right? And that’s the beauty of Omaha 360—it’s community-driven.

“You have to have a place, and you have to have facilitators for the conversations that are taking place and kind of put them together in one bucket, and that’s the beauty that I always see in Willie Barney,” she said. “When you have somebody like that, that can take what’s being said, we can figure out who’s doing what, and we can wrap their arms around whatever the situation is…that’s the beauty of it, and that’s the importance of it.”

Omaha 360 202X

As a source of inspiration behind the formation of Omaha 360, it’s only fitting that former President Barack Obama has taken stock of the initiative’s triumphs. In 2023, the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance initiative proclaimed Omaha one of four ‘Model Cities’ in the US, having reached one of six MBK Milestones: “Remaining Safe From Violent Crime.” As a result, Barney was invited to Chicago to partake in an “Impact in Action” panel in May—one of four representatives to join the former President on stage. 

“First of all, as an individual, he’s everything that you see; he knew us inside and out. He had done his research; he knew about Omaha, he knew what we were doing together, the impact…” Barney recalled. “His focus, and what he’s reinforced, is that he wants to see results, he doesn’t just want to hear the positives. He wants to see results about real change. And so, being on the stage with him, and being a part of that collaborative conversation with him and other cities, it was very, very encouraging. And I think it pushes us to go even further, realizing that other cities are really looking to us.”

Though a landmark achievement, Barney understands that it’s only the beginning—and that Omaha is up to the challenge.

“We want to be the first city in the country—they have six milestone areas—we want to be the first in the country that is exceeding in all six areas: violence prevention, graduation rates, our young people having jobs and opportunities and careers, reading efficiency at third grade, all those components,” Barney said. “Sitting on that stage, it just really encouraged that the fire has always been there. But it just took it to a whole new level—when you get recognized by a President of United States, a global leader, is saying that this is a good thing. 

“We believe in it as a matter of fact. It’s showing what’s possible.” 

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This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.


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