Lawrence police say they’ve stepped up downtown foot patrols in the wake of a shooting that killed three people and injured two others on Massachusetts Street around bar-closing time.
However, the police department does not have permanently designated downtown officers. When it comes to upping Mass Street patrol, Officer Drew Fennelly said, “the only options are to bring someone in on overtime, or pull from other parts of town.”
Since the Oct. 1 homicides, some residents — including city commission candidates at a recent forum — have debated whether police should increase their presence downtown.
Police say they’re open to discussing change but that it’s a matter of resources — both having them, and choosing how best to distribute them.
“The conversation about doing things differently downtown opens up a more far reaching discussion about the staffing levels of our department,” Fennelly said, via email. “We regularly review our patrol resource allocations, and are always looking for ways to improve the way we handle issues as they arise.”
There’s always been a “focus” to have officers downtown during bar hours as available, Fennelly said. Some nights when staffing is higher, officers may be assigned to foot or bike patrol, but that's not typical, he said.
Because of the shooting, he said, police this month have increased foot patrols downtown as manpower allows.
Police also have increased the number of officers downtown when the bars close. However, Fennelly said the department would not share details of those “enforcement tactics” because doing so could compromise their effectiveness.
Typically, according to Fennelly, here’s how downtown patrols work now:
• The entire city of Lawrence is divided into four patrol zones, and downtown lies in the northeast quadrant, or “D quad.”
But D quad includes a lot of other real estate, too. It covers roughly everything north of 13th Street, and between Michigan and Connecticut streets — plus all of North Lawrence.
• At any given time, including weekend nights, three to five officers are assigned to patrol each of the city’s four quads.
Generally officers respond to calls for service in their respective quads, but if needed they get dispatched out of their own quads.
“This would normally apply to in progress incidents where there is a danger of someone being injured,” Fennelly said. “Lower priority calls, for instance noise complaints, or criminal damage reports (not in progress), etc., would be held until an available quadrant is available to handle it.”
• While officers are expected to patrol their assigned quads, they can go to other areas with “short-term” needs at their discretion.
“So between 1:30 a.m. and 2 a.m., it is not uncommon to see officers from the northwest quadrant or the southeast quadrant in the downtown area,” Fennelly said. “This has always been the case.”
• Large special events like parades or street parties are separate.
Officers are brought in on overtime to staff those, and Fennely said the cost is passed on to event organizers so the city can recoup some of the expense associated with staffing such events.
The night of the slayings at 11th and Massachusetts street, there were officers on foot patrol in the area.
They heard the gunfire and responded immediately, the department has said.
The department has not released details about what those officers may have seen, or circumstances of the shooting other than that it was spurred by a physical fight at the corner. Three men have been charged in connection with the incident, but the police investigation is still ongoing.
New Lawrence Police Chief Gregory Burns Jr. — sworn in the day after the triple homicide, just having arrived from the Louisville (Kentucky) Metro Police Department — said this week he has not orchestrated any major changes yet, including to downtown.
Generally speaking, Burns said all downtowns pose unique challenges.
They are areas where entertainment venues, restaurants, drinking establishments and shopping spots meet, he said, and visitors often come in from out of town.
“It’s a place that people want to come, have a good time. There’s nothing against that, we want people to come and enjoy what the city has to offer,” Burns said. “I think that benefits everybody, but it also comes with very unique challenges.”
Burns said he is a proponent of foot patrols but reiterated the resources issue.
“Everything’s always tied to your resources, and your capabilities that you can do at that time,” he said.
Even in an area like downtown — relatively small, with high pedestrian traffic — there are still pros and cons to officers on foot.
“Foot patrols are effective in that they create a visual presence of officers in the area, but officers on foot are significantly less able to respond to incidents that are not in their immediate area,” Fennelly said. “Having officers on foot reduces our ability to respond to in-progress incidents that are more than a block or two away from officers on foot.”
For reference, the distance between Quinton’s at 615 Massachusetts St. and Brothers at 1105 Massachusetts St. — popular drinking establishments at the opposite-most ends of the drag — is more than half a mile.
Most other parts of town don’t have large concentrations of people drinking then pouring out onto the street all at the same time.
But every part of town has problems police need to deal with, Fennelly said.
“Given that only three to five officers are assigned to a quadrant at any given time, taking even one officer from that area, for any amount of time, significantly hampers the timeliness with which calls can be handled in that part of town,” Fennelly said. “Each quadrant has a unique set of issues and circumstances that require patrol attention.”