The city of Lawrence recently did its police department a significant disservice.
In fact, about every year at this time, city officials damage their own department by failing to give the public a detailed accounting of complaints made against Lawrence police officers.
Earlier this month, the Journal-World undertook its annual practice of asking for records related to complaints against police officers. As the city does every year, it denied the request and instead provided a brief summary of the complaints.
Brief, is the key word here. The summaries provide no meaningful description of the allegations or the activity of officers. The summary does communicate whether the allegations were sustained or found to be without merit, but the descriptions tell nothing about how or whether officers were punished for misconduct.
A summary for one complaint simply states: “An investigation into the interaction between two officers revealed unprofessional conduct. The complaint was sustained.”
Such a sparse description does a disservice to the Lawrence Police Department because it gives the public legitimate reasons to question the professionalism of the police force. What was the nature of this unprofessional conduct? Did the conduct materially affect any investigations? Is a criminal walking the streets today because of this misconduct? Were the officers punished?
History has shown the Lawrence Police Department to be a good organization. The department, like any police force in the country, has detractors. It always will. But the city of Lawrence is fueling unwarranted suspicion about the police department by being so vague.
The city says it does not release more information about the complaints because of an exemption in the Kansas Open Records Act related to personnel matters, but that reasoning is questionable. The city could simply provide the descriptions without using the names of the officers involved. In fact, it takes such an approach when writing a City Commission-mandated report related to the use of Taser devices by police officers. The Taser report provides a much more detailed description of police activity — including when officers have misused the device — and the privacy of police officers hasn’t suffered.
The police department, it seems, simply wants the public to trust that it is doing a good job of overseeing and disciplining officers. It may well be doing a good job in that area, but the American system is not built upon the idea of the public blindly trusting its government. Police leaders should understand this better than most. They’re not in the business of simply taking people at their word either. If suspects gave such vague answers in the interrogation room, suspicion levels likely would rise with detectives.
Lawrence city commissioners should direct staff members to provide a more detailed summary of police complaints. The Lawrence Police Department has significant issues facing it that will require the support of the public. Already a $30 million police facility has been proposed, and other multimillion dollar equipment and staffing issues are likely to arise.
Now is the time for the city to eliminate questions about the police department, not create them.