The Lawrence City Commission was right to allow for public comment at meetings of the newly created community police review board.
The new board replaces the Citizens Advisory Board for Fair and Impartial Policing. The board will have broader responsibilities for reviewing complaints of police misconduct and bias, including the ability to accept complaints directly from the public. At present, residents are 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.
The Lawrence Police Officers Association, the local police union, opposed allowing for public comment at meetings of the new review board. The association wanted to restrict public comment to only posted agenda items and disallow discussion of individual incidents. LPOA chair Drew Fennelly said allowing general public comment could lead to public complaints about individual officers that 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.”
All complaints that come to the board are confidential, and reviews of police investigations done by the board will be done in executive session to maintain that confidentiality.
Such rules are not inconsistent with allowing public comment. As City Manager Tom Markus noted, public comment at board meetings could begin with a reminder to residents of the procedure for filing a confidential complaint.
“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.”
Ultimately, the City Commission voted to create the new board and allow for general public comment. Commissioners said that a reminder will be given at the beginning of each public comment period that complaints against individual officers are not appropriate for the comment period.
That’s the right step for the commissioners to take. Part of the purpose of creating a new community police review board is to build greater trust between the public and law enforcement. Limiting public comment would have undermined that purpose.