Police union and city representatives debate city’s responsibility for actions taken by off-duty officers
photo by: Journal-World Illustration
The debate between city officials and local police officers union representatives will continue regarding when an officer’s duties — and the city’s legal obligations to that officer — begin and end.
At issue is when the city will provide legal defense or counsel and indemnification against damages or injury in relation to incidents involving off-duty officers. At a contract negotiations meeting Wednesday afternoon between city officials and Lawrence Police Officers Association representatives, the city proposed that the contract more specifically define the parameters, while the LPOA proposed those protections be expanded.
LPOA Chairman Drew Fennelly said the city’s proposal to change the language related to city-provided legal services and protections could discourage officers from taking action in an emergency if they are off duty. He said that could include active shooter incidents and other situations in which an off-duty officer encounters a crime in progress.
“If you have language that eliminates the protection, I think you are encouraging people to not take potentially lifesaving action, and I think that in itself is a public safety issue for the city,” Fennelly said.
The LPOA is proposing that the contract state that officers taking “necessary enforcement actions” will be extended all the same rights, benefits and protections while off duty that they would be granted if they were on duty.
Currently, the contract states that the city will provide legal counsel to officers in accordance with state law, and that rights, benefits and protection will be extended to officers engaged in “authorized police activities.” The contract further states that those decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis, based on the individual merits of the case and in accordance with case law.
City Manager Tom Markus said he sees actions taken by an off-duty officer as voluntary, and that he thinks the way the contract is currently written creates a lot of liability for the city.
“We acknowledge your responsibility under Kansas statute, but this particular provision takes you way beyond the Kansas statute,” Markus said.
The city is proposing striking the language about making such decisions on a case-by case basis from the agreement. City officials also want the section’s language to mirror that of two applicable state laws, K.S.A. 75-6108 and 75-6109, which state that local governments must indemnify and provide appropriate legal defense for employees acting within their “scope of employment.”
City Attorney Toni Wheeler said that the city would look to case law to define scope of employment.
Fennelly said there are a lot of gray areas and the LPOA would like the case-by-case language to remain in the contract. He said that if the city’s proposed language were to be incorporated, the agreement would need to clarify exactly what the scope of employment entails. The city and LPOA both agreed that the issue would be discussed further following more legal review.
The city’s employment agreement with the LPOA covers wages, benefits and working conditions for officers and detectives and expires at the end of this year. The next meeting between the city and the LPOA will be from 1 to 4 p.m. June 21 at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.