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Thanks to LPOA Christmas Comes Early in South Omaha  12/26/15 10:27:02 AM

Santa’s elf and an OPD officer lend Santa and Mrs. Claus a hand with all the little ones that participated in the annual LPOA-sponsored Christmas party.

Thanks to LPOA
Christmas Comes Early in South Omaha

By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record

A win-win game is one designed in such a way that all participants profit from it, one way or another.
We could use more win-win situations, especially in the area of public safety. And, as we celebrate Christmas today, we may just have found one in Omaha.
We’ve all seen the divisiveness in other cities, such as Ferguson, Mo., and Chicago. The communities are split racially, economically and culturally, each not trusting the other. Crime and violence are out of control.
Omaha too has its struggles with those issues, but they have at least one answer for the problems, thanks to the efforts of a small and dedicated group.
How It Started
Mark Martinez, U.S. Marshal, District of Nebraska, and former Deputy Chief of Police with the Omaha Police Department (OPD), had the opportunity to tell his story to the U.S. Marshals Service in Washington D.C. on the occasion of Hispanic Heritage Month in September.
He spoke of a small group of police officers who sought a way to have a stronger voice, then used that voice for solutions.
But let’s start at the beginning. Nearly 60 years ago, in 1956, Mark’s father, Alfred, became only the second Latino in the history of OPD. His uncle followed two years later. “Thus began the Latino influence in the Omaha law enforcement community,” Martinez said.
Martinez noted that while Caesar Chavez, co-founder of United Farm Workers, was making strides for equality in the southwest, Omaha was still taking baby steps.
Martinez recalled a story a woman had relayed at a diversity seminar about a small, kind act his father, the cop, had done for her as a child. That kind of “community policing” was what made an impression on young Mark and led him to a job in law enforcement. He became the fourth Omaha police officer in his family in 1984 (a fifth would follow). There were still few fellow Latinos in OPD.
In 1986, two years after Mark joined the force, several veteran Latino police officers began “a proactive process aimed at increasing the number of Latino officers hired and promoted within the Omaha Police Department.” Ultimately, after meeting with city officials, they decided to sue the City of Omaha for better representation. This was not without risk, as the action was unpopular not only in city administration but also within the police department, Martinez said. The struggle, which was long and arduous, ended victoriously, in a federal consent decree instructing the city to hire and promote more Latino officers.
A decade later, representation had not kept pace with the rapid, and predicted, growth of the Latino population in Omaha (and throughout the country). The younger Latino officers felt we needed to sue, Martinez said. By then, some of them were members of the Latino Peace Officers Association’s Nebraska chapter (NLPOA).
With the help of that national organization “and encouragement from the community, we again began the litigation process against the City of Omaha and the mayor. … I can say without any doubt that it was a terribly difficult litigation process. …  Also, not everyone within the Omaha PD agreed with what we were doing, some characterizing it as ‘asking for a handout,’ and questioning its merit,” Martinez said.  
“We were determined to stay the course, however, because among other reasons, we were absolutely certain that with more Latino representation, the City of Omaha would be a more effectively policed and protected city.”
In 2001, the newly-elected Mayor Mike Fahey reached out to seek a solution and the parties agreed to update the terms of the consent decree, resulting in more hires and promotions – at all levels – of Latinos, “giving Latinos a seat at the table. It gave us a beginning, an opportunity.”
Community Relations
Community relations were becoming more and more important in effective policing. With that in mind, many law enforcement officials have sought ways to make a difference in their communities, to decrease crime and violence and promote peace and understanding.
At the forefront of that push were the members of the Nebraska Chapter of LPOA. “They are committed to go above and beyond the call of duty, to positively impact the entire Omaha community and especially South Omaha, where many of them grew up and where their family members and friends continue to live,” Martinez said.
Fifteen years ago, LPOA organized and sponsored two community events – an Easter Egg Hunt and a Christmas Party – that have grown beyond all their expectations.
On Sunday, December 13, 2015, three thousand excited kids and their families descended on South High School to see Santa, play games and receive gifts, all courtesy of law enforcement. As the event grew, the OPD SE Precinct, and members of the community, began to partner with the LPOA to put on the event.
Martinez said, “Obviously I think involvement by any law enforcement group is beneficial,  however, the LPOA has the benefit of connecting in many special ways and respects with the Latino community.”
“Our relationship with the community is awesome,” LPOA member and OPD Capt. Rich Gonzalez said. “Many of us grew up in the same neighborhoods as the kids we support and we all have the same goals in mind. We have great relationships with our community who often gives us added support in our mission. As volunteers, it is the support from others that helps our program grow.”
Gonzalez said he believes, “It’s important that our youth see police officers in a role outside of their duties on the street. The kids see the officers coaching, building relationships with them and it develops the trust needed for community relations. It also builds trust within the families of the youth.”
As for the future, he says, “As we continue to grow, the relationships will affect future generations as well. While we work in the community, there will soon be children of those kids we have worked with for over 15 years. The more kids we can have a positive effect on, the easier future relations will be.  One negative police contact with a youth in our community can have a major impact on that kid’s future. 
“We are here to make sure they have daily positive contacts from our police to ensure lasting relationships,” Gonzalez said.
Giving Back a Priority
“Community relations and giving back to your community should be a priority as a public servant. I grew up in the same neighborhoods as the kids in our program and often see them while off-duty. For the kids to have positive role models, and for the families to have someone in uniform they know they can approach, is a necessity in reducing youth violence in our neighborhoods,” Gonzalez said.
“We also had some great role models coming into this job with Mark Martinez and Virgil Patlan (both retired, but officers when we were hired). They really paved the way for many of us younger officers and stressed the importance of community engagement. They are both still active in the community and strong supporters of our program. As the years pass, I hope that we can have the same affect on the younger officers who will be the future of our department and our youth programs,” Gonzalez said.
“As we see our kids grown into well-rounded members of our community, it will also be a nice touch to everyone’s efforts when we see them begin to be future leaders in our community as well.”
Capt. Gonzalez, a 23-year veteran of OPD, oversees the gang, firearms, narcotics and Intel units. He’s been involved with LPOA youth athletics all that time. Ten years ago, the program added three more sports, including Gang Unit Officer Tony Espejo’s baseball league for disadvantaged youngsters. Because of the growth and the city-wide expansion of the athletic programs, they formed the non-profit PACE (Police Athletics for Community Engagement) with community supporters.
“Currently, we have partnerships with OPS, BPOA ( Black Police Officers Association), the City of Omaha, Omaha Police Department, Boys and Girls Club and many community groups. The program has grown from one night a week with 60 kids to six nights a week with over 1,500 kids participating.
Because of LPOA’s programs, Gonzalez said, “I have seen relationships get stronger and stronger every year. The officers involved often see the same kids on the street while on-duty. The relationships they have built, along with the trust, offers the kids an opportunity to approach officers in uniform....something that kids are often afraid or hesitant to do. 
“With everything that is going on in law enforcement, kids and families often hear/see the negatives and this program gives them a different view of what police officers do in a positive way.
“We have seen a lot of change in crimes and youth violence, but that is a total effort with all of the work our police department and the community have been doing together. Chief [Todd] Schmaderer has been a strong supporter of the youth programs and has also been visible at many of our events with the kids. We have also had strong support from Deputy Chief Greg Gonzalez [Rich’s brother] and the deputy chiefs of our department,” Gonzalez said.
Public Trust
As a 31-year veteran of law enforcement in Omaha, Mark Martinez has seen it all and knows what it takes and how important it is, to form relationships.
“Public trust in law enforcement is an absolute necessity. Consequently, it is incumbent upon law enforcement to reach out to the communities they serve and form partnerships. A way to build trust is through engaging community members, especially young people, with programs such as D.A.R.E., Citizens Academy, School Resource Officers and Precinct Community Liaisons.”  
“There is no doubt the public trust level has increased as a result of the activities of the LPOA. … It can’t be by accident that there has been a decrease in crime in the SE Precinct area since the LPOA has been actively engaging young people and families in healthy activities.”
It should be noted that LPOA is a very inclusive organization that now boasts members about an eighth of the police force, with whites, African-Americans, Asian/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans joining with the Latino members.
Relationships cannot help but be strengthened, Martinez said. “My hope is that the community will take on a bigger role with more responsibilities as far as engaging young people with healthy activities. Law enforcement needs to continue reaching out to community members, to citizens, especially to new citizens, and showing them that we care by partnering with them and educating them regarding the law and what law enforcement is all about.
“At the end of the day, I feel we really are a more diverse police department and the city is now more effectively policed.
“I am involved because that is where my heart is. Through my law enforcement experience, I understand some of the obstacles that young people face and I feel an obligation to help in that respect.”
On this Christmas Day, the circumstances of South Omaha’s citizens, especially those in need, can’t help but be brighter with the help and caring that comes to them from Omaha’s Latino police and those who stand with them.

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