Police chief addresses concerns, shares details about protest involving Confederate flags

Lawrence Police Chief Gregory Burns Jr. addresses the Lawrence City Commission on Feb. 20, 2017. Burns explained the police department's response to a Defend

At the Lawrence City Commission’s meeting Tuesday, city leaders addressed concerns raised by some residents regarding a protest that brought Confederate flags to downtown Lawrence.

Earlier this month, the commission had heard about 30 minutes of public comment regarding Feb. 3’s “Defend the Flag” protest, and several residents had asked the city to make a statement about the protest and clarify the city’s protocol for protests.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the commission spoke out strongly for free speech and the right of all people to protest in public areas. However, several commissioners and the city’s chief of police also said they recognized that the “Defend the Flag” protest had disturbed some members of the community. Police Chief Gregory Burns Jr. also provided the commission additional details about the protest and the police department’s response to the events.

Burns began his comments to the commission by saying that the city is in a unique position as a community in having a black man serving as a police chief. Because of that, he said, he felt he needed to address the protest from two different viewpoints: as a resident of Lawrence and as the police chief of Lawrence.

“As a citizen of this community, I would have to say that in 2018, I would think that all people would understand why someone who might look like me would find the Confederate flag as an offensive symbol,” Burns said. “But unfortunately, that’s not the case.”

However, Burns said that as the city’s police chief, he’s made it clear since before his arrival in Lawrence that he expects officers to treat all people with dignity and respect their constitutional rights. He said that applies whatever the person’s views may be.

Burns said it would be disingenuous to make blanket statements about the protesters, and it would not be fair to label all of them racists or white nationalists. He said the department’s overall goal is always to present a balanced policing approach while also allowing for a peaceful protest.

Still, Burns said he understood why people in the community were concerned, especially given that some protesters were seen openly carrying weapons.

“I know that emotions on this day ranged from anger to fear to being nervous to some people not even knowing what to think,” Burns said. “And I get it. We understand.”

Burns then provided details to the commission about how the police department prepared for and handled the protest, which he said brought 100 to 140 people to downtown at its peak. He said the police department had an intelligence briefing ahead of the event, and that extra officers, a crisis response team and officers from at least five other jurisdictions were put on standby.

Ultimately, Burns said that in law enforcement terms, things were not perfect but were “mostly successful.” He noted that the police department did not receive any reports of physical assaults, but there was one arrest for criminal damage for a subject that kicked a vehicle and jumped on it. He said there were two citations: one involving drinking in public and another for a vehicle that was involved in an accident downtown.

Burns also said he would be remiss if he did not address a video of an incident that had circulated widely on social media. The video showed some of the protesters yelling at a resident with an anarchist flag and one protester breaking the flag’s pole, and several residents expressed concern that officers nearby did not appear to adequately address the protesters’ actions.

Burns said the two police officers who were present during the incident chose to separate those involved in the scuffle and de-escalate the situation. He said that is normal protocol, but noted that the department did follow up on the events captured on video after the fact. He said the department has spoken to all involved parties and is sending paperwork regarding that incident to the Douglas County District Attorney’s office, which will make the determination of what happens next.

As part of the meeting, the commission also made a joint statement regarding the protest, affirming that the City of Lawrence must protect the free speech of everyone in the community. Each commissioner also made a personal statement about the events and City Attorney Toni Wheeler provided a review of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. Wheeler noted that the city cannot regulate speech made in a public forum except to establish a reasonable time, place and manner and that any restrictions must apply to all speech equally, regardless of its content.

Mayor Stuart Boley closed the discussion by condemning the Confederate flag and saying it does not represent Lawrence’s values.

“Today, as in 1861, the Confederate flag is a symbol of white supremacy and the violent enslavement of our fellow human beings,” Boley said. “Today, as in 1861, the American flag is a symbol of hope, freedom and equality. Only one flag, our flag, the American flag is the true flag of our country and proudly it waves in Lawrence, Kansas.”

In other business, the commission voted unanimously to pursue warmer-colored LEDs for both city-owned streetlights and those they lease from Westar Energy. Any action would only apply to bulbs not yet installed and is contingent on further conversations with legal staff and Westar about the cost of the potential change. The warmer-colored bulbs are essentially the same cost of the blue-white bulbs currently being used, but the issue is whether the warmer-colored LEDs are subject to “nonstandard” and more expensive rates charged by Westar.