Editorial: Downtown public safety

A greater police presence is a good step, but that alone will not adequately address the problem.

Police are right to increase their presence in downtown Lawrence following a shooting early in the morning of Oct. 1 that killed three people and injured two others on Massachusetts Street.

But increasing the number of officers is a short-term answer. Long-term solutions to public safety downtown will require joint efforts among police, the Lawrence City Commission and community members.

The police department does not have permanently designated downtown officers. In order to increase patrols downtown, “the only options are to bring someone in on overtime, or pull from other parts of town,” Officer Drew Fennelly said.

At present, Lawrence is divided into four patrol zones, with three to five officers assigned to patrol each zone. Downtown lies in the northeast quadrant, or D Quad, which covers roughly everything north of 13th Street between Michigan and Connecticut streets as well as all of North Lawrence.

In addition to the challenge of finding and funding additional police resources for downtown patrols, research has shown that, in general, adding police patrols doesn’t reduce crime, though targeted police presence in specific areas can help. Fennelly said on nights when staffing is higher, officers may be assigned to foot or bike patrol, and because of the shooting, police have increased foot patrols downtown as staffing allows, especially around the time that bars close. New Lawrence Police Chief Gregory Burns said he is a proponent of foot patrols but only insofar as resources allow.

“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.”

The Oct. 1 homicides occurred early on a Sunday morning, around 1:40 a.m. as bars were closing. Underscoring the notion that police presence is no guarantee of deterrence, the shootings occurred near the intersection of 11th and Massachusetts streets, less than a block away from the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center. In fact, officers on foot patrol in the area heard the shots fired and responded immediately.

Lawrence police are rightfully doing what they can to be responsive in the wake of the triple homicide. But it’s important to remember that the number of officers available to patrol 12 blocks of Massachusetts Street is only a small component of public safety, both downtown and in the larger community. A long-term solution will require a larger community discussion not only about police tactics but also about priorities, funding and resources.