'Thug Toddler' Reignites Racial Tensions In Omaha

It's been a hell of a week for the Omaha Police Department. The police union wrote online Wednesday that they'd placed a toddler in protective custody to escape a "cycle of violence and thuggery," and defended their actions by posting a video of the toddler swearing on the union website. The video subsequently went viral, as did outcry over the Omaha police department, which has been under fire for practicing racial discrimination with a worrying regularity. And as if all that wasn't enough controversy, this week, the ACLU also helped file a lawsuit against 32 members of the Omaha police department for a potentially illegal, violent, and racially motivated stop-and-frisk. (But we will get to that in a minute.)

In case you missed it, the "Thug Toddler" incident went viral after Omaha police posted the video online of a black toddler being encouraged to swear by a group of adults. "Shut up, bitch," says the kid at one point, as adults laugh and egg him on. The child was subsequently taken into protective custody, along with the three other kids in the household. But it was the union's wording on its website that really created tension:

We here at viewed the video and we knew that despite the fact that it is sickening, heartbreaking footage, we have an obligation to share it to continue to educate the law abiding public about the terrible cycle of violence and thuggery that some young innocent children find themselves helplessly trapped in.

Though Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer issued a statement Tuesday insisting that he had no control or approval over what the police union posts online, the damage was done: Civil-rights groups say that the incident is yet another example of a dysfunctional relationship between the cops and the city's minorities.

But court documents obtained by local network KETV could tell a different story. According to the network, a social worker went on record saying that the toddler's relatives let gang members into their home, and that the toddler was one of five injured when shots were fired into the home. The family was known to be involved in gang activity, alleges court documents, and the state twice paid to have the family relocate to escape threats. The video, according to these documents, was just another indicator of an unstable home.

The boy's mother, Ennisha Devers, agreed. “They didn't come because the video. They came because of the gang violence and everything that happened with us,” she told KETV.

“That video — it wasn't me," Devers added. "It was a person that came in to my house and recorded it." Later, she said that the man in question was her brother, filming her son in a separate room. "Everybody that thinks I'm a bad mother, I'm not. I’m a good mother to my son. I teach him a lot, and he is very smart,” she said. “All that cussing that he did, he doesn't do that. Somebody told him to do that. My son doesn't do that. I don't allow it."

Will Devers get her son back? That remains to be seen. What is clear is that the relationship between cops and Omaha minorities has been very strained of late. In a lawsuit filed this week, 32 cops in the Obama Police Department are being sued in federal court on charges of using excessive force during an illegal stop-and-frisk. The family that was frisked by the officers brought the lawsuit against all the cops who arrived at the scene, and the ACLU is helping them. The incident was caught on tape by a neighbor, and as of Friday, six of the officers involved have been fired.

The video shows Officer Bradley D. Canterbury apparently pushing Octavious Johnson to the ground, handcuffing him, and then hitting him. Johnson's two brothers, from northern Omaha, were also involved in the stop-and-frisk, which concluded in cops storming the family home. The Johnsons claim the stop-and-frisk was racially motivated.

Octavious has said that his only violation of the law was a parking ticket. Twenty officers ultimately showed up at the scene.

After the video went viral, Chief Schmaderer admitted they'd really messed up, reports the Nebraska Watchdog. “As I have previously stated, we did not carry ourselves in a manner representative of the Omaha Police Department in this incident,” he said. "I am confident in saying the Omaha Police Department is a better department in the aftermath of this incident."

But Omaha's troubled history of racial tension and segregation goes back a long way. As Bustle reported:

Around a quarter of Omaha’s 409,000 residents are minorities... In 2006, Senator Ernie Chambers tried to create three separate school districts in the city, with each drawn along geographic boundaries that correlated to the racial segregation of the city.
The State Legislature signed the boundaries into law in April 2006, only for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to bring a lawsuit against it. In 2009, the Omaha World Herald reported that the city was home to the poorest black children in the US, with six out of every ten of them living below the poverty line.

Image: Getty