The bullets stopped
April 09, 2016
From 2010 through 2014, 57 gun crimes occurred in north Omaha’s Bedford Place
From 2010 through 2014, 57 gun crimes occurred in north Omaha’s Bedford Place. The 10-block area had the highest total in the city.
In 2015, the gun violence ended.
For years, residents of the 10 blocks around 30th and Pinkney Streets endured more gun violence than any other neighborhood in Omaha.
During the five-year period that ended in 2014, that small section of north Omaha had four homicides. Twenty-one people were shot. Gunmen fired dozens of stray shots into houses and cars, terrorizing residents as they walked down the sidewalk, drove to work or slept. The 57 gun crimes left leaders of the Bedford Place neighborhood fed up. They wondered: Will this ever end?
The answer, as it turns out, is yes. Last year, not a single gun crime was reported. Not one. The situation shows how highly localized the problem of Omaha’s violence can be. It also shows that violence is not always intractable — that a neighborhood and law enforcement, working together, can make a community a safer place to live.
The turnaround in this small section of Bedford Place was prompted by several events:
» A longtime neighbor made an official complaint about a bar and known gang hangout, leading city officials to shut it down.
» Residents, businesses and police joined forces to kick troublemakers out of the outdoor areas where they gathered at night.
» Police deployed new technology to provide improved information on when and where gun crimes happened, which let police better position their resources to trouble spots.
It’s been 18 months since a report of shots fired came from the area. In that time, residents say the biggest problems have been unshoveled sidewalks and unmowed lawns.
“That’s the only problem we have,” says Annie Grant, who has lived here for more than 20 years. “We work together, we try to keep our area clean.”
The bad times
Prior to 2015, Bedford Place was the most dangerous place in Omaha, according to an examination by The World-Herald of shooting incidents throughout the city from 2010 through 2014. The newspaper, which obtained the data from the Omaha Police Department, found there were more than 3,300 police reports of assaults, homicides, robberies and vandalisms that involved gunfire during the period.
If those crimes were evenly distributed throughout the city, a 10-block area would have had one gunshot over the five years.
In reality, the vast majority of shootings were in north Omaha. It accounts for 16 percent of the city’s population, but two-thirds of its shootings, The World-Herald found.
Within north Omaha, though, there were varying degrees of gun violence — hot spots, but also some areas that are as unscathed as anywhere else in the city. A few businesses, a few trouble spots, could spark gun crimes on one block while the next was untouched. No place was hit harder than the blocks around 30th and Pinkney. Much of the gun violence was gang-related, police say, but homeowners and innocent people often wound up in the crossfire.
Longtime residents treated it as a fact of life.
“There are so many other things going on now that scare you to death half the time. The shootings. The robberies. The break-ins,” neighborhood association President Bob Samuels said, shaking his head. The police reports on the 57 gun crimes of Bedford Place read like a crime drama.
Two friends were robbed and shot after a stranger climbed into their car one spring morning in 2010. Sisters cowered behind their car as it was riddled with 20 bullets in a drive-by shooting in 2013.
Virgil Dunn, a newcomer to Omaha, was fatally shot while walking down 28th Avenue in December 2013. Dunn had just gone to a liquor store and was walking a few blocks from his home, a bag of beer and cigarillos in his hand, when he was robbed and gunned down. At his killer’s trial, prosecutor John Alagaban credited residents for their help. Several came forward to describe the event, he said.
“There are good, hard working people in all neighborhoods — people just trying to survive and get through the day,” Alagaban said. “Virgil Dunn was one of those people. “Just walking his neighborhood. A couple of bucks, he’s a target.”
Living amid gunfire
Twice, bullets blasted through 65-year-old Keith Bates’ bedroom walls as he slept. The first time, in September 2013, a bullet sailed over his bed, missed the retired tour bus driver by a foot and landed on the floor. Six weeks later, the sound of gunshots in the lot across the street roused him from sleep. Bullets peppered his house. One ripped through the living room wall and shattered a mirror. Another hit the garage he had built. The final shot tore into the bedroom where he lay — sped straight for him, he says. He was spared when the bullet smacked into a heavy wooden dresser and lost steam in folded clothes.
Bates’ mother begged him to get out. She told him to sell the house he had gutted and remodeled and come live with her in Las Vegas.
He stood firm. This, he said, is home. He had bought the house from his aunt and uncle, who built it in 1965. He was born six blocks away.
“Where am I going to run to?” he said. “What am I going to run from? This is where I live, where I will live.” The neighborhood is a husk of the middle-class community it once was.
The stretch of 30th Street that bisects the area was once a thriving commercial district. In 1960, city directory records show, 17 businesses lined the three-block stretch. There was Kelly Pharmacy. Thrifty Food Mart. Martin’s Grocery. Blue Cross Animal Hospital. Robert’s Furniture and Ray’s Texaco, to name a few.
In the 1970s, construction of the North Freeway sliced through the neighborhood, forcing out homes and families. In the broader neighborhood around Bedford Place, the population cratered, dropping from 4,500 in 1960 to 1,300 in 2013, according to census figures. By 2010 there were six businesses. Among the businesses open today are a car wash, a liquor store, a tobacco store and the popular Time Out fried chicken restaurant.
The racial mix shifted from two-thirds black and one-third white in the late 1950s to 90 percent black in 2013, census figures show. Nowadays the typical household earns $14,000 a year — more than $10,000 below the poverty line for a family of four. Some longtime residents faithfully attend monthly meetings of the Bedford Place neighborhood association. At the nearby Charles B. Washington Library, they talk about the same things you hear at any neighborhood meeting. One neighbor doesn’t mow his lawn. Another doesn’t clean up after his dog. They also talked — joked, really — about living life amid gunshots.
Ronnie Powell’s answer was simple. He went to bed. Slept through the worst of it. He bragged that he could sleep through anything. One morning, he said, he woke up, turned on his television and learned there had been a standoff with police overnight. Oh, my, Powell realized. That’s my neighbor. That happened right next door, and I didn’t wake up.
The area’s problems peaked in 2010 and 2011. Police took 34 gun crime reports. Many stemmed from a tiny cinder-block building with blue awnings at 30th and Pratt Streets: Club Seville. Police call places like the Seville “risky business” — the kind of problem spot that has an impact far beyond its walls. Whether it’s a bar, a house or an empty lot, it’s a term used to describe known hot spots that draw shooters.
The bar’s problem was simple, said Capt. Kerry Neumann, who led the northeast precinct at the time: It had become a hangout for gang members whose territory was a few blocks north. It was also the place where one of Omaha’s most feared gang members, Jimmy Levering, was shot dead.
“When you have someone like Jimmy Levering, of the 29th Street Bloods, who adopt the Seville as their bar, you’re going to have problems,” he said.
The Seville comes up time and again in the area’s police reports.
In 2008 police responded to a shooting in the bar’s parking lot. When they tried to enter the bar to investigate further, patrons barricaded the door.
The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission revoked the bar’s license over the incident.
The Seville’s owners went to court, and the court overturned the revocation. In the end the bar got a 10-day suspension.
It stayed in business. In September 2010 a man walked out of the bar and was shot in the knee. A month later police found a 30-year-old man in the alley behind the bar, bleeding from multiple gunshots. That December a patron walked out of the Seville and found his car riddled with bullets.
In early May 2011 two men were shot sitting in their car just after the bar closed. Later that month Levering himself — a cousin of convicted serial killer Nikko Jenkins — was gunned down and killed as he walked out of the bar at closing time. He had been released from federal prison a month earlier.
Police met with the owners of the bar to try to help, Neumann said. In some ways the business itself was a victim, held hostage by dangerous felons, he said. “The business was attracting gang members, people with guns, and they (the owners) couldn’t control people,” Neumann said. The former owners of the Seville didn’t return calls for comment.
Putting smart policing to work
In the fall of 2011, police got a new tool in their fight. The city installed audio sensors from ShotSpotter that tell officers where gunshots are fired as they happen. The sensors cover only a fraction of the city in north Omaha. Putting them near the Seville was a no-brainer, Neumann said. With the sensors installed, police could be on the scene of a shooting in minutes. And for the first time, they had a holistic view of shootings in the area.
In ShotSpotter’s first month the number of shots police knew about citywide jumped.
After looking at the new information, Neumann increased the number of officers on the streets in the early morning hours on weekends. He asked the gang unit to do the same. It was just “smart policing,” he said, using data to decide when and where to deploy resources.
That data-driven approach put police outside the Seville on Sept. 16, 2012. There they found another member of the 29th Street Bloods, 29-year-old Jermaine Lucas, in a shootout. Lucas was out of prison on a furlough at the time, in the second year of a five- to eight-year sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm. After a brief chase, two officers shot and killed him as he reached for his gun.
Bob Houston, then head of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, spoke directly about the neighborhood in the wake of the shooting.
“The residents of 30th and Pratt have the same right to be protected as any neighborhood or community in the state of Nebraska,” he said.
By 2013 the Seville was in trouble. Metropolitan Utilities District shut off the bar’s utilities. Then a neighbor, who has lived in the area since the 1950s, called the city to complain about its shoddy condition. The next day a city inspector agreed, declaring the property condemned. Since then, the building has sat vacant. It’s scheduled to be demolished soon.
The number of gun crimes in Bedford Place fell from 15 in 2011 to seven in 2012. Although the neighborhood was trending in the right direction, seven shootings still ranked the area as one of the most dangerous in town. Police turned their attention to a problem that spread beyond one rogue bar.
At night, the lots on 30th Street — where businesses stood decades ago and a car wash still operates — drew the worst elements from around the area. People would park their cars and drink. Sometimes there were fights. Sometimes there were guns.
Residents pleaded with business owners to take advantage of a city ordinance that would let police stop problems before they could start. Lot owners agreed, hanging signs that said the properties were closed during the late-night and early-morning hours — more than covering the times shooters were most active. Those signs gave police legal authority to clear the lots. They did just that, issuing tickets and making arrests. Within weeks, the lots cleared out.
Chasing off 'the gang thing
One impetus for change came from a local business owner who was fed up with the gun violence. Rita Washington runs Rhythm and Booze, a package liquor store at 30th and Pinkney Streets, and Express U, a tobacco store next door. She has made it work by being tough. She has 32 cameras positioned around her stores and watches them like a hawk. The liquor store used to get robbed. Washington was even kidnapped once, she says, stuffed into a customer’s car before she escaped a block away.
So she bought a gun — and once shot a would-be robber in the neck. “He kept on running,” she said. “So that’s when I went from a .22 to a .38.”
The store has long been safe, she insists. She hasn’t been robbed in 20 years. Her parking lot, though, was another story. Problems from around the neighborhood came to a head out there, she said. People from the “projects” got in scuffles. “The gang thing,” as she calls it, led to arguments and fights.
Washington said she has always kept an eye on her parking lot. But, spurred by complaints from neighborhood residents, she began to take a more active role. She started talking to the worst offenders, telling them to shape up and get out. She was willing to call the cops, she told them.
She began walking in on their arguments. She would elbow her way into groups. She even hopped into the passenger seat of one patron she suspected of dealing drugs. How could a senior citizen be so bold? “These are the same people I sold candy to years ago,” Washington said. “I know them.”
She cleaned it up — and, if anything, is emboldened. A panhandler showed up recently, asking for money. She called the police. She didn’t wait for officers to arrive before telling the man what she had done. “You called the police on me?” the man asked, incredulous. “Yes, I did,” she told him. “And if I see you out here again, I will call them again. “I don’t miss much.” Lately, there hasn’t been much to miss.Data Omaha