(CNN) — The diapered child is bombarded with obscenities and racial slurs by the adults around him.
The African-American toddler knocks down a chair and gives nearly as good as he gets, responding to some of the comments with an upraised middle finger and telling one of the adults at one point, “Shut up, bitch.” The adults laugh and prompt him to repeat other crudities.
Just another day on the Internet — until the police union in Omaha, Nebraska, posted the clip on its website to highlight what it called the “cycle of violence and thuggery” the community faces.
Now, the Omaha Police Officers’ Association is under fire from the city’s police chief, the ACLU and at least one community leader. They say the move needlessly antagonizes the city’s minority communities, who make up about a quarter of Omaha’s 409,000 residents.
Sgt. John Wells, the union’s president, said the video was “disturbing” and “offensive.”
“The focus here isn’t on any particular ethnic group. The focus here is on the troubling behavior towards this child,” Wells said. “This behavior is going to potentially lead this child down a path that is completely unhealthy.”
On the website where the video is hosted, the union said the clip came from “a local thug’s public Facebook page.”
“We here at OmahaPOA.com 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,” the police union wrote in a post accompanying the video.
“Now while we didn’t see anything in this video that is blatantly ‘illegal,’ we sure did see a lot that is flat out immoral and completely unhealthy for this little child from a healthy upbringing standpoint,” it added.
Wells said one of the adults mentions a local street gang in the video.
“That is why when we talk about the culture, the criminal culture, that this is to try to break the cycle and deal with the culture of violence and the culture of gang activity,” he said.
But in a city where police officers’ treatment of minorities led to lawsuits, criminal charges against two officers and the firings and reassignments of several others in the past year, critics say the video is poking at raw wounds. Willie Hamilton, president of the community activist group Black Men United, said the union “crossed a line by doing this.”
“For them to take a video out of context — a 2-year-old who doesn’t have the brain capacity to know what’s going on — and to say that this child, because two adults acted inappropriately, is going to end up in a life of crime is totally inappropriate,” Hamilton said.
And the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, which filed an excessive-force suit against the Omaha Police Department on behalf of an African-American family on Monday, said the union’s use of “racially charged language” was “very disconcerting.”
“Officers should be working to build a culture where anyone feels comfortable calling law enforcement,” ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Becki Brenner said in a written statement. “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.”
Police Chief Todd Schmaderer tried to distance his agency from the controversy in a statement issued Tuesday, saying that the union’s website and Facebook page are separate from those of the Omaha Police Department and that he has little authority over the public statements of union members.
“With that background and understanding, 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,” Schmaderer said. “I strongly disagree with any postings that may cause a divide in our community or an obstacle to police community relations.”
Hamilton said the statement was too little, too late. Schmaderer was speaking out only “because this thing is on the Internet and went viral,” he said.
“What do you think it’s going to do about the trust level? You think we’re going to call you and tell you anything? No. All this is doing is highlighting that.”
Wells said union members have turned the video over to the department’s child victim unit, which will work with child-welfare agencies to investigate the circumstances. He said the organization “didn’t think we’d get this big of a reaction.”
“Hopefully, the impact is, it gives law-abiding citizens what law enforcement deals with on a daily basis, and it sort of throws back the blinders that these type of problems are going on,” he said. “And we can have a very frank and open discussion on how to tackle these issues and come up with solutions.”