Community Police Review Board to consider investigation process for complaints, whether board can play a role

photo by: City of Lawrence

Members of the Community Police Review Board, the Lawrence Police Department and city staff discuss issues raised by a community survey at the board's meeting April 23, 2021.

Based on community survey responses, the Community Police Review Board will be considering several issues as it continues to draft changes to provide oversight of complaints against police, including whether the board can play a more active role in complaint investigations.

As part of its meeting Thursday evening, the board discussed the more than 250 survey responses it received regarding proposed changes to the ordinance. The survey asked multichoice questions, but also provided space for respondents to leave comments to explain their responses.

Board member Marie Taylor said that in addition to considering some of the issues raised in the survey responses as the board works on its recommended changes to its review powers and duties, the survey responses could also be a resource as the board works on policy reviews or other future projects.

“I really think that the survey tool did what we thought it would do, which was to create a public forum,” Taylor said. “As if we had had a town hall meeting, where everyone gets to express their views.”

The board has been working on changes to the ordinance that governs the board after members expressed concern about the way the board was set up, saying that its narrow review powers and limited access to information made it nothing but a “rubber stamp” for the police department.

As the Journal-World has reported, the board has not reviewed any complaints against police that fall in its purview since it was created in June 2018. The current ordinance governing the board — which was arrived at after a long debate that included pushback from the local police union — allows the board to review only racial and other bias complaints if the person involved decides to appeal the police department’s decision and does so in writing within 14 days. The board has not reviewed any complaints since its creation more than two years ago because no complaints concerning racial or other bias have been appealed.

A division of the police department, the Office of Professional Accountability, investigates complaints made against its members. The board’s current draft of changes to the ordinance do not change that, but some survey responses questioned whether that process was transparent and independent enough to hold officers responsible for any wrongdoing.

Under the current setup, the board does no investigation of its own and only reviews the police department’s investigation. If the board receives an appeal of a racial or other bias complaint to review and it disagrees with the department’s finding, it can only recommend to the city manager that the department investigate further. The board’s proposed ordinance broadens the board’s purview to allow the board to review the department’s investigation of all types of community member complaints concerning law enforcement actions, not just appeals of racial or other bias complaints, and the ability to request an independent investigation.

Board member Jane Gibson said the issue of transparency came up in comments to a lot of the questions, including the view that someone outside of the police department should be investigating complaints against police. One comment said the current setup presented “an inherent conflict of interest,” while other comments said that the OPA should have all authority over complaint investigation and the community police board review was unneeded, and only created mistrust and “harassed” officers. Regarding all the responses, Gibson said that because the survey was voluntary, it represented a self-selected sample of people who felt strongly one way or the other, and many of the response reflected that.

The board agreed that it would like to have further discussion with the city’s legal department regarding how much of a role the board or other outside party could play in the investigation of complaints and whether the board can play a more active role. Other issues for further discussion included what training the board should receive and what the process should be if a complaint is also tied to a criminal investigation.

Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire told the board that the outside consultant the city hired to review the police department is also reviewing the draft ordinance, the survey results, the complaint process and the overall system of police accountability. McGuire said that review would not be complete until around mid-May and that the report should help give more context to the board’s recommendations.

Once the board finalizes its recommended changes to the ordinance, it will go to the City Commission for consideration. The survey results can be viewed on the Lawrence Listens platform on the city’s website, lawrenceks.org.

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