Omaha police had long rebuffed efforts by the “Cops” television show to follow their officers and film in the city.
But in the spring of 2014, Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer had a change of heart.
The reason: His officers had been involved in an embarrassing ordeal in which “several officers had been fired,” Schmaderer said Tuesday.
Though the chief didn’t identify the event, Omaha police had come under intense scrutiny in March 2013 after a video surfaced of an officer manhandling a car owner during the towing of vehicles at 33rd and Seward Streets. Other officers then chased relatives of the car owner into a nearby house.
Schmaderer, who attempted to fire six officers involved in the ordeal, testified Tuesday that he wanted to show the community, and beyond, that Omaha police officers were better than that display.
“We had worked very hard on our professionalism,” Schmaderer said. “I wanted (‘Cops’ film crews) to come and reset everyone as to how far our Police Department has come.”
The decision backfired. On Aug. 26, 2014, “Cops” TV crew member Bryce Dion, 38, died as officers opened fire on a man robbing a Wendy’s at 43rd and Dodge Streets.
Now, Dion’s loved ones — mom Gloria and brother Trevor — have brought a wrongful-death lawsuit against the City of Omaha. After this week’s trial, Douglas County District Judge James Masteller will decide whether the city is liable for Dion’s death.
Dion’s attorneys, Brian Jorde and Christian Williams, argued that the city and its Police Department had a duty to protect Dion, who was unarmed, as they responded to each emergency.
They also argued that the officer who inadvertently shot Dion was improperly shooting at the robbery suspect as he ran away.
Omaha Police Officers Jason Wilhelm, Brooks Riley and Darren Cunningham fired 36 times at Cortez Washington after Washington pointed a gun at them and fired. Unbeknownst to officers, Washington was brandishing a pellet gun.
Dion, who had been riding with Riley and Wilhelm, had taken cover in a vestibule entrance as shots rang out. An Omaha police officer’s bullet — it’s not clear whose — hit Dion in the armpit, in a gap not covered by his bulletproof vest.
But the city disputes that it had a responsibility to protect Dion. It argued that Dion assumed inherent risk — as evidenced by the bulletproof vest he was wearing. And Assistant City Attorney Ryan Wiesen said Dion had at least 8 seconds to leave the restaurant but chose to stay.
Wiesen said officers had no choice but to fire at Washington after he fired at them several times. And they had no clue that Dion was crouched in the vestibule behind Washington.
“What happened was tragic,” Wiesen said. “But this case isn’t about emotion. It is about fidelity to the law.”
Emotions were raw Tuesday for Dion’s family. His mother, Gloria, wept as a videotape played of Dion’s last moments. His brother, Trevor, shook his head and rubbed his mother’s back.
The video shows the rapid events. Officers Wilhelm and Riley arrived to find Detective Cunningham on his way into the restaurant. Riley and Cunningham entered the east side, Wilhelm went to the west side.
Gunfire rang out. Though struck several times, Washington managed to run out of the restaurant before collapsing in the parking lot. Meanwhile, Dion slumped.
“Bryce, are you alright? Bryce, are you alright?” someone calls out on the video.
Tuesday, Schmaderer extended a hand and squeezed Gloria Dion’s shoulder before he testified.
The chief testified that he knew there was a possibility of death or injury to anyone who rides along with Omaha police. No one had ever been killed in the 20-year history of the show, though a “Cops” employee once was struck by an officer’s bullet in another city.
Schmaderer acknowledged that he didn’t initiate any policies, procedures or special training of his officers before the filming.
And, he said, he relied on the experience of Langley Productions, the “Cops” producer that has filmed dozens of police officers in the line of duty over the past 20 years.
“There was no onus upon the Police Department to change anything that we did,” Schmaderer testified. “Had there been any onus to do so, I would not have invited the show to come.”
In fact, Officer Wilhelm said, Dion, a sound technician, told officers that the crew wanted real-life scenarios, not staged ones.
A law enforcement expert, hired by Dion’s estate, said that didn’t absolve the Police Department of the duty to protect the “Cops” crew.
In the 45 seconds between dispatch’s call of the robbery until the officers arrived, Wilhelm and Riley had ample opportunity to tell Dion and his cameraman to remain in the car in the face of such a violent crime, said Michael Lyman, a former law enforcement officer who now teaches criminal justice at Columbia College in Missouri.
Lyman also took issue with officers continuing to fire at Washington as he was running out of the restaurant. He noted that Washington had suddenly shifted, from brandishing his gun to dropping it to his side and running with his back to the officers.
Lyman acknowledged that the situation evolved rapidly.
“There were civilians present, a film crew reasonably believed to be present,” Lyman said. “It is the (foremost) duty of officers to protect innocent lives.”
That an innocent died doesn’t sit well with Schmaderer. But Schmaderer said Washington, who continued to hold his gun, never stopped being a threat to the officers or citizens.
“There was no reason to believe the officers knew that Mr. Dion was in that vestibule,” Schmaderer testified.
Because of Dion’s death, Schmaderer said he “of course” regrets allowing “Cops” to film in Omaha. Dion and cameraman Mike Lee had been in Omaha for about eight weeks. That night was one of their last scheduled days to film in Omaha.
Dion’s death bothered Schmaderer so much that the chief and 12 officers — including the three who were in the Wendy’s that night — traveled to Boston for Dion’s funeral.
Schmaderer even spoke at the service — offering his condolences and playing a final “end of service” radio call.
“They appreciate that,” said Jorde, the family’s attorney.
“I appreciate the family as well — thank you,” Schmaderer said.