Lawrence City Commission delays action on police review board, fearing the body could be denied access to investigative files
photo by: Mike Yoder
The Lawrence City Commission has delayed creation of a community police review board, citing concerns that the board could be denied access to investigation files and related video or audio recordings.
At their meeting Tuesday, commissioners voiced concerns about the police department and city legal staff’s broad ability to redact police internal investigation files and the ability to withhold video and audio recordings from the board under some circumstances.
As proposed, the community board will be able to review police investigation files related to racial or other bias complaints made against police when the person who made the bias complaint disagrees with the police findings. The proposed ordinance creating the board states the file can be redacted on a case-by-case basis to protect confidential information, but does not go into details about what those redactions could be or define certain kinds of information that cannot be redacted.
Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said she strongly disagreed with not giving the board every piece of information that police used to come to their decision.
“I’m really struggling with that because I don’t really see how you can expect the board to make a decision on edited information,” Larsen said. “How can this board make an honest decision when some information is being redacted, some of the video may or may not be there?”
Larsen began the discussion by asking city legal staff whether the board would be able to view police video or audio recordings related to complaints of bias. Assistant City Attorney Maria Garcia said that providing the board those recordings was a possibility.
Garcia pointed to the part of the proposed ordinance creating the board that states, “if an item requires redactions but may not be redacted due to the form in which it is kept, then such item shall not be provided to the board.” She said that statement would apply to video and audio recordings. When asked by Larsen whether that means the city can withhold the recordings, she said that if the recordings contain identifying information or information about a criminal investigation, the city would not provide the board the recordings.
Larsen also asked about the level of redaction that would be allowed, and whether it would be beneficial to detail what could be redacted.
Garcia responded that the types of things that would be redacted would be information that is not open to public, such as identifying information, criminal history and information related to a pending investigation. Garcia said the city did not anticipate redacting so much of the file that it is useless, but that the ordinance was left intentionally broad because if the city excluded anything, then it would be prohibited from redacting it.
“So if we say only social security numbers and criminal history can be redacted, then maybe there is a case down the road in which highly sensitive criminal investigative information is provided, and in that case, now we can’t redact it because we’ve limited ourselves in the ordinance,” Garcia said. “So that’s why it was left intentionally broad.”
During public comment, some members of the public criticized the board as currently proposed. Lawrence resident Justin Cabral said that in its current form, the board is “toothless,” and that especially given the police shooting of a black man last week, that the board needs to be given the tools it needs to do its work.
The city allocated money for police body cameras in this year’s budget, and every officer in the Lawrence police department will wear a camera once the commission approves a policy for their use. Lawrence resident Trinity Carpenter said officers cannot be held accountable if the city is not transparent. She said that as public tax dollars are funding the cameras, that policies need to make it clear what footage the public will have access to and under what circumstances.
“If I’m going to fund a body camera, it is as an accountability measure and not to collect evidence,” Carpenter said.
Commissioner Jennifer Ananda, an attorney and social worker, originally proposed that the ordinance to create the new board guarantee the board would have full access to the investigative file. At Tuesday’s meeting, Ananda said the ordinance had come a long way, but was not where it needed to be. Ananda said given the recent police shooting, she felt an urgency to have the board in place, but that she does not feel comfortable saying that redactions to the file and recordings can be made on a case-by-case basis alone.
Garcia said that state open records law provides exceptions for criminal investigation records and that the ordinance is within the boundaries of the law. Still, Larsen said that she would like the ordinance to be more definitive and she could not fathom the board not being allowed to see video recordings related to bias complaints.
Ultimately, the commission voted unanimously to defer the approval of the ordinance creating the board and directed city staff to review the section of the ordinance dealing with redactions to address specific exemptions for redaction and to look into the options for redacting video or audio recordings rather than disallowing them should they contain private information.
If approved, the new board will have the ability to accept misconduct and bias complaints against the police from the public, which are forwarded to the police department for investigation. The police department’s Office of Professional Accountability conducts the investigations. The current board, the Citizen Advisory Board for Fair and Impartial Policing, reviews only a summary of the investigation provided by police.
The City Commission will reconsider the ordinance to create the new Community Police Review Board at its meeting June 19.
In other business, the commission:
• Voted unanimously to uphold the permit denial for the 2018 Tour of Lawrence to hold its final event in downtown Lawrence on Sunday, July 1. City administrators denied the tour’s street closure event permit earlier this month after Downtown Lawrence Inc. objected to the level of street closures requested for the downtown race out of concern that street closures deter shoppers and hurt sales. Race organizers have said holding the event downtown is important for the race and economic impact projections indicate spending from racers and spectators will benefit the city’s overall economy.
• Received a presentation from BBC Research and Consulting about the ongoing housing study. The study includes an analysis of the Lawrence housing and rental market and survey results from residents, landlords and business owners. It is anticipated that the final report will be completed in July or August.