The work of a violence prevention program in Omaha, Nebraska, along with efforts by the city’s police department, have been credited for reducing shootings in the city while violence continues to rise in other parts of the country.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 6,000 fatal shootings in total so far this year.
Omaha officials said their community violence prevention program, known as “Omaha 360,” has helped the city steadily reduce its shootings over the past 15 years.
The initiative, started in 2009 by the Empowerment Network, brings local law enforcement, churches, nonprofits and neighborhood associations together to prevent crime and combat the culture of violence.
The Empowerment Network is a nonprofit organization funded by public and private money from the state, city and various philanthropic organizations.
“It really did help to build a lot of trust between the police and the community and just among these various organizations,” Omaha Police Department (OPD) Deputy Chief Scott Gray said. “Empowerment Network is the hub because it kind of pulls together all of these different organizations that by themselves tend to not stay connected and more effective.”
According to OPD stats, the number of shootings in the city dropped from 246 in 2009 to 121 in 2022. Its lowest point was in 2017, a year that saw only 90 shooting victims.
In addition, the OPD reported a remarkably high 87% homicide clearance rate (referring to the arrest or death of a suspect) in 2022.
Homicides have also been on the decline, going from a yearly average of 38 between 2007 and 2012 to 28 between the five years of 2017 and 2022.
Willie Barney, CEO and founder of the Empowerment Network, said the 360 program began as a small initiative with just seven people but eventually grew with help from the community.
Its strategy is “collaboration, prevention, intervention, enforcement, re-entry and support services,” Barney said.
Gray explained that the police department’s initial reaction to the program was one of skepticism.
“We were a little bit skeptical that any of this was going to work or that these were going to be programs that lasted.”
However, the OPD came around to the idea, and 360 became “the first really concerted effort with a lot of backing from the PD to get some kind of sustainable action in place in the city.”
Barney said that the Omaha 360 initiative addresses immediate threats of gun violence, as well as its underlying causes.
“In all of our areas, whether it’s education, violence prevention, housing, employment — we identify agencies, organizations, churches and neighborhood groups that are working in that particular area and we bring them together [and] identify what the strengths are,” Barney said.
Omaha 360 hosts a weekly, hour-long public forum on Wednesdays with updates from law enforcement and community partners.
Barney explained that around 80–120 people from the community meet every week to go over crime statistics and talk solutions.
During the meetings, the community also directs resources, such as a local church groups or violence intervention teams, to prevent possible outbreaks of violence.
Gray said the meetings are “a way to get everybody in the same room, discussing strategies weekly, with follow-up items.”
The Empowerment Network and Omaha 360 also offer re-entry programs and employment opportunities for young people. Some of their intiatives, like “Step Up Omaha!” help 14-to-21-year-olds find jobs and work experience opportunities.
By providing the youth with economic opportunities, community leaders hope to prevent individuals from engaging in violence.
“It really comes back to those poverty issues — housing, unemployment, education,” Barney told ABC News. “We really have gone upstream to address those issues, while also building better communication channels with the police department.”
Gun violence hasn’t completely disappeared in Omaha, despite the positive signs.
On January 30, two Omaha officers were injured and one person was fatally shot during a break-in. The next day, police responded to an active shooter report at a Target store in West Omaha. The gunman was armed with an AR-15 rifle and was fatally shot by officers.
In addition to community efforts to reduce violent crime, the OPD is also utilizing a variety of strategies to boost public safety.
“We always thought of our job as enforcement — making that initial arrest — and not necessarily being involved on the backside of it,” Gray said. “It all makes sense now. But certainly you didn’t think about, well, what’s this guy gonna do when he comes back to the community?”
Gray said the department connected through Omaha 360 with a group called YouTurn, a violence intervention organization that aims to prevent and deter gang violence.
The police department has also begun to emphasize de-escalation training — something many agencies across the country have been focusing on in recent years.
According to Gray, the OPD trains many officers as crisis intervention specialists.
“A significant portion of our sworn law enforcement officers are crisis intervention team-trained,” Gray explained.
Gray also said the department employs civilian mental health practitioners who accompany officers on calls to respond to mental health-related crimes.
“We have five police precincts — we have one mental health co-responder embedded in these precincts,” he said. “They’re very good at de-escalating situations involving mental health.”
The OPD has also focused on building trust with the community, and offers a $25,000 reward for crime tips (the highest in the nation).
“We get a lot of tips just from the community because I think the level of trust is significantly higher than it was 10 years ago,” Gray said.