Before moving to Omaha in 2021 to take a job as a local reporter, I spent hours on the city’s crime-mapping website, looking up the address of every rental I was interested in. It was my second job out of graduate school, and I was preparing to move to a new city alone.
Seven months after I arrived in Omaha, a carjacking turned me into a statistic on the map. In the aftermath, I was forced to navigate a chaotic system in search of help, all while in a state of terror, confusion, and frustration. The entire experience was isolating. Although I did receive some support from city-funded victim services, I encountered major obstacles that make these services difficult to access.
After taking some time and distance to recover from the trauma, I began to see the bigger picture: This system fails many victims of crime, leaving them to struggle largely on their own.
It started with a knock on my passenger-side window last summer. It was around 9 a.m. I was stopped at an intersection near my home, waiting for a pedestrian to cross the street. He had his shoes in his hand. After making eye contact, he approached my car and asked for a lift to a gas station up the street.
I hesitated, but I knew I’d probably feel bad if I said no. Part of me wanted to help a fellow person of color. I had never given a stranger a ride before. “What’s the chance something bad happens the first time?” I asked myself.
Another knock on the window.
It’d be really shitty if I just drove off, I thought.
I unlocked the door. He opened it and slid into my back seat.
We didn’t talk. Two minutes later, I pulled off the busy road by the gas station and put my blinkers on.
“We’re here,” I said.
Instead of thanking me and getting out, he said, “Go to Domino’s, get out of the car, and leave the key inside.” He was nervously holding a snowbrush he’d picked up off the back seat of my car.
I knew I was in trouble. My next thought: I didn’t have comprehensive insurance and couldn’t afford to lose my car.
I made a split-second decision and pulled into the gas station instead of the empty Domino’s parking lot. I ripped the keys out of the ignition and ran as fast as I could.
He caught up to me and tried to pry the keys out of my hands. I yelled for help, hoping I could stall him until someone intervened.
He shoved me to the ground, called me a “bitch,” and yanked at the key ring, before biting my finger hard enough to crack my nail. I was too terrified to fight back.
Finally, he was able to tear the keys out of my loosened grip. He got into my car, but bystanders surrounded the vehicle. He got out and took off on foot. Someone called the police.
Officers came a few minutes later. They quickly tracked down the suspect and took him into custody. The police would later tell me that the person I thought I was helping was actually a 14-year-old who was living at a nearby shelter that served system-involved youth.
I asked an officer what would happen to the teenager. Along with the question, a jumble of words came out: I blamed myself for having given him a ride. I worried about running into him again, knowing we lived in the same neighborhood. I hoped he could get the help he needed.
Seeing my distress, an officer eventually handed me a card with the number for a trained mental health professional embedded in the Omaha Police Department. He told me I could call within the next 90 days to get free counseling.
With that, the police let me go, with no further instructions or information about what to expect. I clutched the business card and a slip of paper with a case number on it. The door of my car was still covered in the black dust the officers had used to lift fingerprints.