The ACLU says, in one incident, Omaha officers sent over 100 peaceful protesters to a coronavirus-infested jail.
A recently filed lawsuit accuses Omaha police of using excessive force to contain racial injustice protests.
According to ABC News, the complaint was filed earlier this week by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska. In its filing, ACLU attorneys alleged that Omaha police officers had fired pepper balls at protesters and indiscriminately arrested bystanders.
Danielle Conrad, the executive director of the ACLU’s Nebraska chapter, pointed out the sad irony in Omaha’s response to the protests.
“The answer to the protests against police brutality shouldn’t be more brutality,” Conrad said. “Omaha Police have put Black Omahans and all Omahans calling for injustice in the unacceptable position of deciding between their constitutional rights and their own health and safety.”
However, city officials defended the police force from accusations of brutality and excessive force. Omaha City Attorney Paul Kratz, for instance, said mass arrests were necessary—either to prevent violence before it had broken out, or to curb riots already in progress.
“Omaha has always been supportive of free speech and public demonstrations and will continue to do so,” Kratz said. “The police make every effort to cooperate and protect demonstrators as long as they obey the law and police commands.”
ABC News notes that “on several nights” between spring and summer of 2020, “hundreds of people” gathered across Omaha to protest police brutality and racial inequity nationwide.
Most such protests were peaceful. However, on May 30th, a protester was killed during an altercation with an Omaha-area bartender—a large demonstration, likely involving thousands of people, had turned violent. The bars’ windows were smashed, and nearby businesses were similarly vandalized.
On the 30th—and several other occasions—police responded to chaos by deploying non-lethal crowd suppressant munitions, including pepper ball guns. They also arrested dozens of people, sometimes indiscriminately.
The Omaha World Herald reported that Omaha police used pepper canisters at least 157 times in the first half of 2020—more than the past seven years combined.
In their lawsuit, the ACLU also accused the city of risking demonstrators’ lives. On July 25th, more than 100 protesters were detained in downtown Omaha.
Even though the protest had been entirely peaceful, participants were rounded up—then sent to a nearby jail that was in the throes of a novel coronavirus outbreak.
Conrad took particular issue with the mass arrest of peaceful protesters.
“It’s not appropriate to meet peaceful protesters with a militarized response,” she said.
Most of the arrested protesters were released without charges, with prosecutors citing a lack of evidence. Omaha police officials later changed departmental policy, requiring both that officers wear body cameras and that they use their body cameras to photograph riot participants instead of simply arresting everyone in the area.
Along with seeking damages for their clients, the ACLU wants Omaha to discard the civil unrest ordinances used to detain protesters, claiming they are too unconstitutionally broad.