LINCOLN–(News Release Feb. 25)–On Thursday, the ACLU of Nebraska publicly released emails from Omaha Police Department personnel and City of Omaha officials (see bottom of news release), saying messages that discuss surveillance of Black activists and allies raise red flags.

The release is a first-of-its-kind effort for the ACLU’s Nebraska chapter.

The civil rights organization obtained the emails via three public records requests throughout 2020, specifically requesting emails naming local activists. In response, officials provided hundreds of emails and attachments. Many of them, the ACLU says, show surveillance activities that appear to be linked to advocates’ beliefs about the need for police reform rather than based upon reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct.

Among the batch are emails showing police sharing the location of an advocate’s birthday party; a police lieutenant requesting undercover officers participate in a chalking event days after police received city guidance that it was a lawful activity; and an officer discussing Black leaders’ perspectives on police reform ahead of a planned community celebration called BlackOut Fest.

Other emails show police were prepared to repeat militarized tactics they used at some of the largest 2020 protests. In one email, a police captain advises officers they should have a SWAT team prepared if they receive “intel” that BlackOut Fest “could go sideways.” Similarly, a document showing police preparations for a memorial walk honoring Zachary Bear Heels includes an officer assigned to “PEPPERBALL & TANK.”

Police also discussed surveillance of the ACLU’s legal clinic for people caught up in the mass arrest at the Farnam march, ultimately deciding to have a car pay “special attention” to the event but not “sit on it.”

Courtesy of ACLU Nebraska.

Ja Keen Fox, one of the advocates included in the records request, said the results cause concern.

“Omaha Police Department’s unethical and wasteful surveillance of local advocates and activists is just another example, in a long line of inappropriate behavior, that demonstrates a clear lack of cultural competency and fiscal responsibility,” Fox said. “We see again and again that OPD will publicly comment on transparency and trust, then privately betray Omaha residents. I hope this latest information strengthens the public’s resolve to demand city leadership redirect our city’s funds to community organizations that we can trust to use our taxpayer money responsibly and ethically. I hope voters keep these actions in mind as they cast their ballots this spring. I am proud of the work this movement for social justice has done to increase transparency and radically change the way Omaha understands public safety. I look forward to continuing this work in its many iterations.”

In a letter to Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer sent Friday, ACLU of Nebraska Legal Director Adam Sipple said the organization has significant concerns about both the sheer extent of surveillance and its purpose. The letter asks for immediate clarity on whether these activities fall in line with current policy and whether they have drawn resources away from investigating genuine public safety matters.

“I am sure you understand there is a disturbing historical pattern of police monitoring lawful activities of Black civil rights leaders,” Sipple said. “Unnecessary, biased surveillance damages public trust and our shared public safety goals– especially among communities that suffer the most from police misconduct and over-policing.”

Almost one full week later, Omaha Police have not replied.