Chat with a city staff attorney about downtown Lawrence safety issues

Welcome to our online chat with a city staff attorney about downtown Lawrence safety issues.

The chat took place on Friday, July 7, at 1:30 p.m. and is now closed, but you can read the full transcript on this page.

Moderator: Good afternoon and welcome to our chat today about safety issues at the night spots in downtown Lawrence.

I’m Dave Toplikar, online editor, and I’ll be serving as moderator today.

Our guest today is Scott Miller, a city staff attorney who has researched what the city can do about improving the safety at downtown bars and entertainment venues.

Scott, welcome to the News Center.

Scott Miller, city staff attorney: Thanks for inviting me to answer questions on this important issue.

Moderator: For starters, can you tell us what the city commission is planning on the issue for next week?

Scott Miller, city staff attorney: At the direction of the City Commission, next Monday we are holding what is essentially a “town hall” type meeting to discuss the safety of individuals in our downtown area generally, and our entertainment venues specifically. The meeting is at 5:30 in the City Commission chambers. The meeting is in response to a staff memorandum discussing several options that might be considered to improve downtown and entertainment venue safety.

City attorney Scott Miller answers questions about downtown safety.

Mary: There’s been a lot of talk about the problems with safety coming from “out of town” or “Those people” (meaning, I believe, minorities from KC or Topeka). Are there any facts to back up those concerns – are those committing the crimes largely minority race members and/or residents of other cities?

Scott Miller, city staff attorney: In my experience, crimes are committed by people from every racial, economic and social group. Recently, some of the more high profile or violent incidents that have taken place have involved visitors to our city. Crimes are, however, committed every day by residents of Lawrence, and any solution to existing safety concerns must address the criminal acts themselves and not the residence or racial status of the perpetrators.

Laura, Lawrence: The installation of security cameras downtown seems awfully draconian to me. If such a plan were implemented, what measures would be taken to ensure that the use of these cameras is lawful, and that the privacy and civil liberties of law-abiding citizens is protected?

Why can’t we just get the police out their squad cars, and walking the beat?

Scott Miller, city staff attorney: Laura, you raise two very interesting questions, one about the place of technology in law enforcement and one about the deployment of police resources. Let me address them in reverse order.

The City of Lawrence has 74 patrol officers and 9 patrol supervisors when fully staffed. These officers provide the vast majority of responses to calls for service within the City on a 24 hours a day basis every day of the year. Currently, the Department is 12 officers short of being fully staffed, but a new police academy starts next week. When you factor in required days for training, normal “weekend” days off, vacation and sick leave, the reality is that on most days there are between 12 and 15 police officers on patrol at one time. They are expected to cover a City that is 31.35 square miles in area and almost 90,000 in population, and they do so very adequately and efficiently. In order to respond to emergencies, however, the officers must be mobile, and patrol vehicles offer the best mobility.

That is not to say that foot patrol or bicycle patrol does not happen, especially in the downtown area. The fact is that whenever resources permit, there are officers on foot in the downtown area. Also, one of the patrol districts comprises the downtown area, so there is almost always an officer located there.

In fact, there are times when every officer on a patrol shift is in the downtown area handling bar closings and the rest of the City is receiving emergency services from the University of Kansas Police Department. This actually happens more often that we would like.

So that leads us to the idea of actively monitored security cameras as a sort of force multiplier. By using a technological resource, police officers could be routed to problem areas more efficiently to respond to events and perhaps prevent incidents from happening.

Obviously, there are privacy issues raised by the use of cameras. Part of those issues can be solved by camera placement, and part by the technology itself. Placing the cameras so that they only monitor public areas, or what in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence would be areas where individuals have no reasonable expectation of privacy, ensures that no one’s privacy rights are being illegally violated. In addition, the camera technology includes software that blanks out things like the windows of buildings so that the cameras may not be used to “window peep” by an unscrupulous operator.

To some extent, the areas monitored would be of the type that can be viewed on Channel 6’s camera during most of the day, just with better resolution.

Terry Lawrence: With the new concealed carry law now in place, does that fact increase the police department or the city commission’s concerns over public safety, and is there any way the city could outlaw carrying concealed weapons into any public building in the city? Or do individual business owners have a right to do that?

Scott Miller, city staff attorney: Obviously, firearms in the hands of individuals who would use them to commit crimes or to harm others is of major concern to the Police Department. I would not presume to speak on behalf of the City Commission on this issue. Hopefully, however, the process that the legislature has put into place will help the public feel confident that the people licensed under the new statute are not the sort of people who will use their weapons to commit crimes or harm others in any situation that does not involve lawful self defense. And hopefully, the process actually screens individuals adequately to ensure the public’s safety.

Under the new law, individual business owners may post their businesses as places where weapons are not allowed, and it is a crime for people with concealed carry permits to carry weapons into those establishments.

Other places, like city halls, police stations, drinking establishments that are not classified as restaurants, and many other similar places, do not need to post signs to prohibit fireworks in these locations. Concealed carry in these locations with or without a permit remains illegal.

Clair, Lawrence: Where the bar scene should be looked at, I think the more important situations to be looked at are our children, I’m not talking about incompetent parenting but rather the recreational areas that our children attend. Last year my child attended the south park summer camp, until she told me that there was broken glass and needles in the grass. I went and walked the area and found syringes, broken whiskey bottles, pipes and intoxicated people passed out during the hours of the camp. Also when my daughter plays basketball at the community building, I have escorted her to the restroom because of the, I assume homeless or drug addicts, because of the backpacks and blankets they were carrying into the bathroom. On at least two occasions, I found syringes in the bathroom stall. Seems the safety of our children is not being addressed, maybe the people responsible for this are not even aware. Who can I report such activities to that will address them. Maybe we could have recreational area that are off limits to the homeless and drug addicts. How can I effectively voice these concerns, where they can be looked at? This year I have chosen not to enroll my daughter in any recreational activities that are held in “public” places, if they are public, doesn’t the city have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for children of parents who pay fees to the city for children to participate in their recreational activities. After all, we are the people who also pay taxes. Do the homeless pay taxes? ha ha.

Scott Miller, city staff attorney: Clair, although I am not directly involved in the day to day operations of the City’s recreation facilities, I believe I can say with some confidence that all our facilities should be places where all our citizens feel safe and welcome. Any complaints about the condition of our recreation facilities may be addressed to Fred Devictor, the Director of Parks and Recreation. Also, I am sure our Interim City Manager, David Corliss, would be attentive to your concerns. The City’s number is 832-3000.

James Overland Park: How much are police officers paid in Lawrence and how does that salary compare with salaries in other cities of the same size? And how does the size of the Lawrence PD force compare with other city’s? In order to protect the public safety, do you think Lawrence needs more officers, better paid officers, or a change in laws?

Scott Miller, city staff attorney: Police officers in the City of Lawrence are compensated in large part based upon salary market surveys of peer communities. Although I do not have exact pay ranges with me today, the amount offered allows the City to attract and retain many well qualified candidates for sworn officer positions. I can tell you that the starting salary for a Lawrence police officer is approximately $37,752 a year.

The City of Lawrence has about 16 sworn police officers per 10,000 population. There is no magic number when it comes to police staffing. Different cities offer unique challenges based upon topography, crime rates, and many other factors that require either more or fewer police officers to conduct the policing function adequately. New York City, for example, has over 40 police officers per 10,000 population. Most Midwestern cities, however, have much less. The average is probably something like 20 per 10,000 population.

The Lawrence Police Department is very effective in using its resources, using technology to augment its efficiency, and its employees are well trained professionals. Obviously, more police officers would increase the Police Department’s flexibility in responding to and preventing problems, but that sort of choice is a policy choice that must be made by elected officials. Nothing comes without cost, and costs must be balanced with all the other needs in the community.

Larry Lawrence: How do personally think citizens should handle themselves if confronted with a person or situation where bodily harm is being threatened? Should we all just stay home at night, run away from any crowd we see outside buildings, avoid walking in alleys after dark, fall to the ground if someone tries to rob us, take martial arts, pull out a gun, etc?

Scott Miller, city staff attorney: I am no self defense expert and this question does not really fall within the category of my professional responsibilities, but because the question asked for my personal opinion, I will try to answer it.

I would not urge that people live their lives paralyzed by fear. Staying home at night, and running from crowds of people just because there are crowds of people is not how I choose to live my own life.

Although nobody and nothing can serve as an absolute guarantee of one’s personal safety, I would advocate that people remain aware of their surroundings at all times, and that they not place themselves into situations that are dangerous unless it is necessary to do so. Basically, I think that there is no magic formula that yields the best course of action every time. Choices about personal safety are inherently in the hands of the individual involved, and I would hope that each person would use good common sense and judgment in to respond to potential problems in a way that does not escalate the situation or expose the individual to unnecessary risk.

Moderator: That will be our last question today.

Scott, thanks for being with us and giving us your insights on the downtown safety issue.

I’d also like to thank our readers for all their questions.

Scott Miller, city staff attorney: Thanks again for inviting me. If anyone has any questions that could not be answered today, feel free to attend the public meeting on these issues Monday in the City Commission chambers at 5:30 P.M.