City of Omaha on hook for $250,000 medical bill of gang member charged with shooting police officer

City of Omaha on hook for $250,000 medical bill of gang member charged with shooting police officer
This still photo is from an Omaha police officer’s body camera Tuesday, when Officer Ken Fortune was shot, police say, by John Ezell Jr. OMAHA POLICE DEPARTMENT

A gang member who allegedly shot an Omaha police officer at close range is set to get his own medical bills picked up by Omaha taxpayers.

According to authorities, John Ezell Jr., 36, was shot multiple times by officers after he fired at Officer Ken Fortune during a traffic stop in north Omaha.

Ezell spent a month in the hospital recovering from his injuries.

Now, the city says it has to pay Ezell’s $239,670.63 bill for treatment by the Nebraska Medical Center and UNMC Physicians.

“I’m sure there’s going to be a number of council members who will hold their nose and vote for it,” said City Council President Ben Gray. “I’m going to be one of them. We’re obligated to do it.”

Assistant City Attorney Jeff Bloom said the city is constitutionally required to provide medical treatment to people who need it while in police custody.

Bloom cited a Nebraska Supreme Court case from 1988 involving the City of Omaha and state law that codifies the responsibility of the political subdivision — in this case, the city — to cover the cost.

So when a person needs treatment that arises when they’re in the custody of Omaha police and they’re unable to pay, the City of Omaha has to pay the bill.

Similarly, should someone housed in the Douglas County Jail need medical care, like treatment for a heart attack, and can’t afford to pay for it, Douglas County is typically responsible, because the person is in the government’s care at that time.

Bloom said that had Ezell been insured, the city’s liability would have been reduced. But he wasn’t, and he wasn’t covered by Medicaid or Medicare, either.

“Since the medical need arose from an incident in which there was a shooting (involving Omaha police), that unfortunately makes us liable,” Bloom said.

It’s understandable if some residents question why the city has to pick up the tab, particularly for someone who fired at police, said Sam Walker, an emeritus professor in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

But Walker said that there are two issues at play and that Ezell’s behavior shouldn’t preclude him from getting medical care.

“We try to make this a decent and humane society, and if someone is injured, the person who caused that (the police) should be liable,” he said.

According to police:

Omaha gang officers in an unmarked car tried to stop the vehicle Ezell was riding in near 26th Street and Laurel Avenue on Sept. 11.

The driver, Brandon Richey, initially complied, but as police walked toward the car, Richey took off. Richey later said Ezell yelled at him to “Go!”

Officers tried to stop the car multiple times. Finally, Ezell, a known gang member, opened the passenger door and pointed a gun at Fortune, shooting him in the shoulder.

Two other officers, Christopher Brown and Jeffrey Wasmund, returned fire, hitting Ezell multiple times. Police have said Ezell was drunk, with a blood alcohol level of 0.333, when he was arrested.

Ezell was charged with attempted murder, first-degree assault of an officer and three weapons charges. He’s held on $3 million bail.

Fortune, the police officer, got out of the hospital after a few days and was back on the job a month after the incident. He also was shot at during a separate incident a year ago.

The council has to take action on such claims to pay medical expenses that exceed $35,000, Bloom said. Claims less than that can be handled without council approval.

The council is set to vote on the claim on Tuesday. It would be paid with money from its judgment fund, which is covered by property taxes.

Ezell’s medical bill was actually $479,341.25. But Bloom said the city asked to pay half, and the Nebraska Medical Center agreed.

Taylor Wilson, spokesman for the medical center, said he was unable to comment about an individual patient’s medical bills or payments, citing federal privacy regulations.

But in general, he said, it’s common practice for hospitals, including a not-for-profit system such as Nebraska Medicine, to send a bill to recover costs associated with any care provided.

Bloom, the city attorney, said he couldn’t elaborate on the kind of medical care Ezell needed, but said he spent more than a month in the hospital, from Sept. 11 to Oct. 17. Police said at the time of the incident that his injuries weren’t considered life-threatening.

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