Neighborhoods Notice Changes in Gang Unit
By Shannon Henson
World-Herald Staff Writer
Like many gangsters in Omaha, the guy hanging out on the porch is familiar to Officer Dan Clark.
The last time Clark saw him, he was wearing a bulletproof vest.
Clark and his partner decide to search the man, and the rest of the gang unit joins them within minutes. They also search four men they suspect have been smoking pot in a nearby SUV.
The neighbors are so used to cops flooding their block that a toddler’s haircut continues on a nearby porch.
Cleaning up problem areas such as this one at 16th and Victor Streets in northeast Omaha is more of a priority than ever for the Omaha Police Department.
In September, the department made subtle changes to a gang unit that had already changed names, personnel and philosophies over the past several years. The unit has been controversial, even entering the political fray during the last mayoral election.
From September through November, the unit tallied 104 felony arrests, 338 misdemeanor arrests and identification of 71 new gang members.
With the help of other police units, they have seized 47 firearms, 13 vehicles, 17 ½ pounds of cocaine, more than 24 pounds of methamphetamine and 30 pounds of marijuana.
Changes in the unit’s operation over the years make it impossible to provide comparative statistics, said Capt. Don Thorson, adding that the numbers speak for themselves.
Neighbors and gangsters seem to notice a difference.
A woman approaches Sgt. Rich Gonzalez at a corner market one day after she sees his unit swarming the neighborhood.
“I want to shake your hand,” she says. “This summer my mother couldn’t even sit on her porch.”
The improvements, police officials say, resulted from the September changes:
The unit has existed under various names, including the Weed and Seed unit and the metro unit, which dealt with gangs and drugs in neighborhoods with violent crime.
The metro unit was disbanded in 2000 by Chief Don Carey, who wanted to assign more officers to street patrol. He thought that the special unit had become isolated and that all officers should work on gang problems.
During the mayoral campaign in spring 2001, then-Mayor Hal Daub and his opponent, Mike Fahey, sparred over the department’s approach to fighting gangs. After Fahey won the election, the night gang units were formed.
Those officers are on a first name and nickname basis with many of the city’s 1800 suspected gang members.
“People know we’re out,” Lt. Rich Swircinski tells his crew, warning them about an increase in surveillance systems and firearms in gangsters’ homes.
One warm day, the units take on a several-block area. IN marked and unmarked squad cars, they swarm the area, running everything from mundane traffic stops to clandestine surveillance.
Within minutes, they are chasing a known gang member, racing after him through back yards.
The officers cuff the man and start looking for drugs they suspect he discarded. They brush their boots across the dry grass of an abandoned lot.
When they can’t find any, they wonder if he swallowed some. “If you ate, Michael, you need to go to the hospital,” Officer Jeff Gassaway says.
“I didn’t have nothin’ on me,” the suspect says.
Gassaway asks Michael if he knows of any warrants out for his arrest. He grunts in reply.
“That means yes,” Gassaway says.
A radio check finds five. Michael is taken to jail.
Gang members such as Michael have their photos, names, nicknames, gang affiliation and pictures of their tattoos stored in a police database.
That way, when cops hear that someone named Q-Tip was involved in a crime, a computer check might help track down the suspect.
Much of the gang unit’s time is spent serving search warrants-24 were served in three months.
As officers prepare to serve one recently on a suspected crack house in north Omaha, the lieutenant warns them:
The suspect has killed before, although charges weren’t filed after prosecutors decided the slaying was justified.
Officers outfitted in black, shielded riot gear storm through the door. They handcuff three people, including an adolescent boy who is later released.
The score: a half-ounce of crack found in the trunk of a car that still has a bullet hole in its door from the homicide.
The officers also seize pictures that could help them in future cases.
One is of a girl younger than 12. She has a bottle of Budweiser in one hand and flashes a gang sign with the other.