Editorial: Give full access to police board
City commissioners are right to delay ordinance until it provides proper checks and balances.
The shooting of a man by a police officer last week in Lawrence underscores the need for the Lawrence City Commission to give its community police review board access to as much information as possible when reviewing incidents.
Last week, a Lawrence police officer shot 34-year-old Akira S. “Nell” Lewis of Lawrence, who had been stopped for a seat-belt violation near the intersection of Sixth and Vermont streets. Lewis, who is black, survived the shooting. The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office is investigating.
The City Commission is weighing an ordinance that would strengthen the Community Police Review Board’s role in reviewing cases where police bias is alleged. The ordinance gives the board, whose role was largely ceremonial in the past, the ability 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 police findings.
But the ordinance also provides police with broad authority to redact the files. And, in the case of audio and video, the ordinance indicates they can be withheld if sensitive information in them can’t be redacted. That rightfully concerns some commissioners.
“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,” Commissioner Lisa 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?”
Commissioner Jennifer Ananda, an attorney and social worker, proposed that the ordinance guarantee that the board would have full access to the investigative file. Ananda said, given the recent shooting, she felt an urgency to have the board in place but that she did not feel comfortable with the current version allowing redactions.
Assistant City Attorney Maria Garcia noted that the Kansas open records law provides exceptions for criminal investigation records, meaning they can be withheld from public inspection.
But while Garcia is right that criminal investigative records are exempt from the open records law, that doesn’t mean such records can’t be released. The City Commission has the right to instruct its police department to make full investigative files, including police body camera video and audio, available for inspection by its Community Police Review Board.
The reason for a Community Police Review Board is to provide a system of checks and balances to ensure fairness within the law enforcement system. An unbiased, third-party review of incidents such as the recent shooting can only build public trust and confidence in its police department.
The Community Police Review Board, constructed correctly with proper access to investigative records, could be a model for other cities to follow in terms of strengthening the relationship between the city’s residents and its police force. City commissioners must take the time necessary to get the ordinance right.