Police chief says department takes pride in ‘nice guy’ reputation; rejects idea that ‘friendly’ policing emboldens criminals

In this file photo from Oct. 19, 2017, Lawrence Police Chief Gregory Burns Jr. talks with Lawrence resident Julie Meyer during a meet and greet at McDonald's, 901 W. 23rd St.

Earlier this month, the Journal-World published a story revealing some perceptions from Lawrence’s young people and bar-going crowd regarding crime in the city’s nightlife scene. Namely, folks in their twenties hailing from nearby communities described Lawrence as a magnet for those looking to take advantage of what outsiders perceive as a more laid-back attitude toward disorderly behavior.

One young woman from Kansas City, Mo., even posed a theory that Lawrence’s reputation as a college town “lenient” on crime may have partly contributed to the Massachusetts Street shooting that killed three people and injured two others last October.

“I would definitely have to say that it is very lenient, very laid-back,” said Lizzy Stithem, who also called Lawrence police presence minimal expect near a couple of college bars. “I have had many incidents where I’ve run into the Lawrence law enforcement when I’ve been intoxicated. I did not get in trouble when I probably should have.”

But Gregory Burns Jr., the city’s new police chief, wasn’t necessarily buying into that perception or any trouble that may come from it.

“I’ve never heard that point of view from anybody, but obviously everybody is entitled to their own opinion,” Burns said.

Lawrence Police Chief Gregory Burns Jr. took over the department in October. After serving four years in the U.S. Air Force, Burns became a police officer in 1993, and served most recently as assistant police chief in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Louisville, Ky., native arrived in Lawrence less than 24 hours before an early-morning altercation near the intersection of 11th and Massachusetts streets erupted into a deadly spray of gunfire among a crowd of hundreds. Three young men from Topeka, all in their late teens or early 20s, have since been charged with crimes connected to the shooting. Their victims were young, too, ranging in age from 20 to 24, and came from Topeka and Shawnee.

Police have never made any formal pronouncements about a potential link between nearby cities and Lawrence’s recent crime spike, and Burns isn’t about to start now.

“I wouldn’t comment on that either way,” Burns said when asked last week. “We have to deal with what we have in Lawrence, whether it’s in Lawrence or coming from someplace else.”

A key part of that, he believes, is community policing. The strategy focuses on building strong relationships and working closely with community members. One tool that Lawrence police have used successfully, Burns said, is the department’s popular Twitter account, launched in late 2015.

The police department began its Twitter wisecracking a few months later, with Officer Drew Fennelly (the man behind LPD’s Twitter account) tweeting a joke about the Jayhawks’ loss to Villanova during that March’s NCAA Elite Eight matchup.

Forensic investigators work Sunday morning on the corner of 11th and Massachusetts streets next to Watkins Community Museum. About 11:30 a.m., the street was still blocked off to traffic after a shooting about 10 hours earlier left three people dead and others injured.

Things really blew up after that — the police department hosted its first tweet-along in May 2016, complete with photos, videos, GIFs and memes of all sorts. Earlier this year, Lawrence police were featured on the long-running reality show “COPS,” an event officers promoted for months beforehand on Twitter.

As of Saturday afternoon, the account had more than 86,500 followers.

If the Twitter silliness is creating a perception that Lawrence police aren’t serious about crime, Burns doesn’t see it.

“At this point, I’m not really concerned,” he said. “Because to me, that outreach is important. Because when something bad happens, look at all the users that we’ve got that can help us with crime. Look at all those people we have that can help us find a missing person or something important.”

In Burns’ view, humor helps to humanize the police. The Twitter zingers show Lawrence residents that officers are people, too, he feels. And he applies that same reasoning in response to concerns, that perhaps the Lawrence Police Department is a little too laid-back.

Enforcing law and order in a college town presents its own challenges, though they’re generally the same as policing anywhere else, Burns said. In his days as a beat cop back in Louisville, he’d often “give people breaks” if the situation warranted it. He expects his officers to use their own best judgment when the law allows some discretion.

“Balance” in law enforcement, whether in a large metropolitan area or a relatively sleepy college community, is always key, Burns said.

“You can’t always use zero tolerance as much as you would like to at times, because nobody’s going to talk to you, nobody’s going to trust you, and you’re not going to get anything accomplished,” he said. “Obviously safety’s always key, but if you can show a little compassion to somebody, I would say show them compassion. But if you can’t, you can’t.”

The last year has been a particularly deadly one in Lawrence and the surrounding area. According to figures provided by local law enforcement agencies, Douglas County tallied more homicides in 2017 than any year in at least the last decade.

In 2017, Lawrence police investigated six homicides, which ties with 2014 for the highest number of homicides in Lawrence in the last decade. Four years over the last decade were homicide-free. The year 2016 had just one homicide.

That Lawrence saw a sudden spike in homicides within the last six months of 2017 isn’t necessarily indicative of a larger trend, Burns said. And he cautions against making any premature judgments.

“To make a trend, it has to be going on for more than one year. And you have to understand, other communities (nationwide) have seen an uptick in violence for probably the last three, four years,” Burns said. “Maybe it’s just now getting to Lawrence, or maybe Lawrence doesn’t have a trend.”

On Oct. 1, the day of the Mass Street triple homicide, two city commissioners, Leslie Soden and the now-retired Mike Amyx, told the Journal-World they’d like to discuss crime concerns with the new police chief.

Soden worried at the time about gun violence in downtown Lawrence, where the victims were shot along public sidewalks. Kansas law allows most people to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.

“This complicates matters that it happened on the street,” Soden said, “especially if it is acceptable to walk around with a gun, according to the state. That is mind-boggling to me. That really doesn’t help matters.”

Later in October, the Journal-World walked down Massachusetts Street and looked at the front door of every business along the bustling downtown corridor. Out of dozens of shops, restaurants, bars and music venues, only 11 had no-guns signs posted. Only one of them, The Red Lyon, was a bar.

When asked if the city should encourage more downtown businesses to post no-guns signs, Burns said there are other methods to discourage folks from bringing firearms into drinking establishments.

“Signage of anything, to me, never hurts,” he said. “But if (bar owners) don’t want weapons in their bars, they should either be wanding people (with metal detectors) or patting people down for weapons.”

Burns also said he’s talked to city commissioners about downtown crime, including a more in-depth private conversation with one commissioner Burns declined to name. There hasn’t been a public discussion, though Burns said he was not opposed to the idea.

He has talked with plenty of community members since his arrival last fall, however, and Burns said there hasn’t been one single, monolithic issue dominating those conversations. Instead, residents’ concerns “run the gamut from violent crime to speeding to homelessness,” he’s found.

Burns has spoken repeatedly about his focus on community policing, which relies on positive interactions between officers and residents. Before being interviewed for this story, he hadn’t heard complaints that his department is too soft on crime, though he considers every concern legitimate. “Whatever the problem is, if it’s a concern to you, it’s a concern to me,” Burns said.

“The fact that people believe our officers are friendly — I don’t take that as a slap in the face. I see that as a compliment,” Burns said. “I’d rather be known as a police department that treats people with dignity and respect, and if that’s being known as nice guys, so be it.”