Lawrence City Commission to consider changes to handling complaints against police

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on May 3, 2016.

Lawrence City Commissioners at their meeting Tuesday will consider establishing a new community police review board that would help the city handle complaints against the police department.

The new board would replace the Citizen Advisory Board for Fair and Impartial Policing, and it would have some additional responsibilities and oversight regarding complaints of police misconduct, including complaints of racial and other bias.

Currently, residents are generally instructed to make complaints about the police department to the department itself, and the advisory board receives only summaries from the police department at the end of the investigation.

“This new board would be looking into allegations of racial or other bias-based policing and actually hearing what the police department investigated, and be more involved with it,” Assistant City Attorney Maria Garcia said, “whereas the board right now doesn’t hear any details about an internal investigation.”

If approved by the commission, the board would be authorized to accept complaints regarding police misconduct or bias from the public, which would be forwarded to the police for investigation. As before, residents may also file complaints against police with the state attorney general’s office.

For some bias complaints, the board’s duties would go beyond just accepting complaints. The ordinance defines bias as the unreasonable use of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender or religion by a law enforcement officer in deciding to initiate a law enforcement action.

The board would be able to review bias investigations if the person who makes the complaint disagrees with the finding of the police department’s investigation and files a written appeal. In that case, the board would review the investigation “to determine if further investigation is needed,” and would then make a written recommendation to the city manager for review.

Garcia explained that under state law, the city manager has ultimate discretion on such issues.

“Under Kansas law we have the city manager form of government, so it’s the city manager that makes the ultimate decision on whether there is any type of action involving an employee,” Garcia said.

Last year, there were 17 complaints filed against the police department, Garcia said. Those can include complaints from the public against police officers and complaints filed by other officers.

All complaints are confidential, and reviews of police investigations done by the board would be done in executive session to maintain confidentiality. Board members would sign a confidentiality agreement, and the ordinance notes that breach of privacy is a misdemeanor.

The new format and rules for the board were originally proposed in December, after which public feedback was collected regarding how to improve police oversight and trust. Since that time, city staff has also met with representatives from the Lawrence Police Officers’ Association, the local police union, for feedback on the ordinance, according to a city staff memo to the commission.

One of the sticking points of those meetings appears to have been the ability for the board to accept public comment. As is, the ordinance allows public comment during board meetings as long as it does not include comments regarding individual officer misconduct. City Manager Tom Markus previously told the commission that format creates a forum for discussion that doesn’t necessarily exist currently.

But the LPOA has suggested editing the ordinance to disallow general public comment and instead only allow the board to accept public comment on regular agenda items unrelated to a complaint, according to the memo.

Garcia said that suggestion is “substantial,” and whether general public comment will be allowed during the board’s meetings will be up to the commission.

“It’s a policy decision that the city commissioners will have to talk about,” she said.

Other purposes of the board, as laid out in a draft of the ordinance, include advising and assisting the city in policy development, education, community outreach and communications related to racial or other bias-based policing.

The City Commission will vote on the ordinance that would create the board at its meeting that convenes at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.