A toddler seen babbling a litany of obscenities while adults goaded him on in a video that went viral has been taken into protective custody, police in Omaha, Neb., said on Wednesday. But while the video itself has generated plenty of commentary, a civil rights group says the police union's handling of the incident spotlights a troubled relationship between the local police force and minority communities, as well as bears possible racist undertones.
In the video, an African-American toddler wearing just a diaper pushes over a chair, waves his middle finger, and repeats the obscenities and racial slurs that adult male and female voices, heard in the background, encourage him to say. The adults laugh each time the child parrots the profanities.
The video was first posted on the Facebook page of a man that the Omaha Police Officers Association (OPOA) called “a local thug.” It went viral when the police union reposted the video, under the title the “Thug Cycle,” on its website and Facebook page, calling the “heartbreaking and sickening footage” an example of the “terrible cycle of violence and thuggery” that local police officers battle.
“Now while we didn’t see anything in this video that is blatantly ‘illegal,’ ” the union wrote, “we sure did see a lot that is flat out immoral and completely unhealthy for this little child from a healthy upbringing standpoint.”
Viewers reacted to the video with outrage – but not just at the adults egging the child on. They also had vitriol for the police union that had reposted the video.
Commentators on the postings and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska said this week that the union’s description of the video – in particular its use of the word “thug” to describe the video’s original poster – have put stress on an already-bitter relationship between the city’s minority communities and a police department that has been beset over the past few years with allegations of racism and abuse.
The episode comes just days after the ACLU filed a lawsuit against 32 Omaha police officers, alleging that they had used excessive force against a local African-American family while responding to a parking incident last spring. An internal investigation of the incident, in which a woman was allegedly thrown from her wheelchair and handcuffed, has so far resulted in the firing of four of the officers, and criminal charges have been brought against two of them.
“At a time when the Omaha Police Department is facing a lawsuit from the ACLU over racially-biased misconduct, it is very disconcerting to have the Officers Association use such racially charged language,” said Becki Brenner, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, in a statement provided to the Monitor.
“The manner in which the Officers Association has discussed this incident has done nothing but further erode community trust and reinforce the need for independent oversight, trainings, and other reforms,” she said.
A year earlier, the ACLU had asked the Department of Justice to conduct a federal review of police practices in Omaha, alleging that a string of reports of police abuses suggested that the department had “failed to police itself,” the ACLU said.
Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said in a statement Tuesday that there is a distinction between the union, which posted the video, and the police force and that the comments on the video do not reflect the Police Department’s views.
"I want to make it explicit and clear that the views expressed on the OPOA Facebook page do not necessarily reflect the official stance of the Omaha Police Department," Chief Schmaderer said. "I strongly disagree with any postings that may cause a divide in our community or an obstacle to police community relations."
The union has not removed the postings and later posted a blog defending its use of the word “thug,” arguing that the term is not freighted with racist connotations. The word is used by people “of all colors, races and socioeconomic classes to describe anti-social, non-law abiding folks of all colors, races and socioeconomic classes,” the union said.
It also posted a public-service video on its blog called “Children See, Children Do,” in which young children mimic the violent actions and language of their parents.
“If we don’t understand it, we are doomed to continue to repeat it,” the union wrote under the video. “That’s how troubling cycles work.”
The toddler in the video was one of four children in that home taken into the care of state protective services, police said. A determination has not yet been made about future actions, a spokesman for the Omaha Police Department said on Thursday morning. CNN first reported that turn in the case.