The Lawrence City Commission at its meeting Tuesday approved the creation of a new community police review board that will help the city handle complaints against the police department.
The new board will replace the Citizens Advisory Board for Fair and Impartial Policing and will have some additional responsibilities and oversight regarding complaints of police misconduct and bias.
The board will also be able to accept public comment, although the local police union, the Lawrence Police Officers’ Association, opposed that provision.
LPOA chair Drew Fennelly told the commission the union was concerned that allowing general public comment could lead to residents making public complaints against individual officers even though such complaints should be kept confidential.
“There is no opportunity for that bell to be un-rung once it happens,” Fennelly said. “Once an officer’s name is used during general public comment, that information is out there, and the safeguards in place to protect the officer’s privacy have already failed. I think there’s significant avenues outside of general public comment that allow people to address those concerns with the board.”
The new board will accept complaints from the public regarding police misconduct or bias, which will be forwarded to the police for investigation. 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.
According to the ordinance establishing the board, all complaints are confidential, and reviews of police investigations done by the board will be done in executive session to maintain confidentiality. Vice Mayor Stuart Boley told Fennelly the opposition to general public comment assumed the board wouldn’t operate according to the ordinance, and asked Fennelly if there were steps the city could take to increase the LPOA's confidence in the board.
Fennelly noted that board members’ contact information is public and residents could reach out that way. He also said he thinks a more appropriate way to address concerns would be to provide a time when residents could ask for topics to be added as future agenda items.
But Boley said there are community concerns that may not be able to wait until the next meeting. Commissioner Lisa Larsen added that the board’s meetings are quarterly, and that if residents had to wait until the next meeting, it could be up to three months before their concerns were addressed.
City Manager Tom Markus also disagreed with the LPOA opposition to general public comment. In reference to the privacy concern, Markus said that in addition to general public comment at City Commission meetings, social media means the risk of such a disclosure is constant.
“The reality is, the risk isn’t just at this meeting," Markus said. "That risk exists 24/7 that somebody is going to come out and name an officer in a public setting for doing something incorrectly."
Markus said one of the purposes of the review board is to provide a venue to address community issues related to the police department. To address LPOA’s concern, he suggested the board’s public comment period begin with the admonition that residents must follow the confidential complaint procedure.
“I think we’re getting things kind of crossed over here about what we can and can’t do,” Markus said. “And we stand the risk of almost being accused of censorship by not allowing that discourse to happen in a public setting.”
Commissioners Mike Amyx and Matthew Herbert were more hesitant about the public comment provision, and expressed concern about police officers being protected throughout the process. Herbert said if public comment is offered, the commission should, at the very minimum, provide attendees with a statement that specific allegations must be made in confidence.
“I think we do owe it to the community to have public comment, but I think we also owe it to our police department to put forth a policy that protects them and protects their due process,” Herbert said. “So I think we need to be very careful how we go about doing that.”
Herbert also said it was important to note that the LPOA endorsed the ordinance “with very few exceptions,” and he applauded the organization for its willingness to work with the city.
Ultimately, commissioners voted unanimously to allow for general public comment and approved the ordinance to establish the board, with a few alterations. One was to make the public comment provision subject to the commission’s review and approval of the board’s bylaws. Commissioners generally agreed that those bylaws should establish a formal procedure to remind meeting attendees that complaints against individual officers must not be made during public comment.
There was limited discussion about the board’s additional responsibilities. For some racial or other bias complaints, the board will also be able to review bias investigations if the person who makes the complaint disagrees with the police department's findings and files a written appeal. In that case, the board will review the police department's investigation “to determine if further investigation is needed,” and make a written recommendation to the city manager for review.
Larsen also suggested — and the commission agreed — that gender identity be included along with race, ethnicity, national origin, gender or religion in the ordinance’s definition of bias.
The creation of the board’s bylaws will occur in coming months, and the commission determined the ordinance establishing the new board would not be effective until March 1, 2018.
In other business, the commission:
• Voted unanimously to approve an infrastructure spending plan for the proposed citywide sales tax renewal. The 2018-2022 capital improvement plan will serve as the spending plan. The CIP lists several high-dollar infrastructure projects and annual programs that would be funded with the sales tax, including the residential street maintenance program, improvements to 23rd Street, and increased funding for sidewalk, bicycle and pedestrian improvements. A full list is available on the city’s website, lawrenceks.org.
• Conducted a public hearing regarding the sale of alcohol by Culinaria Food and Wine, 512 E. Ninth St, which is within 400 feet of a church and a school. Because Culinaria regularly sponsors catered events at the location, city staff recommended it seek a distance limitation waiver for the premises rather than for each event. The commission found that alcohol sales by Culinaria are not averse to the public welfare or safety and voted unanimously to grant a waiver.