Outside study of Lawrence Police Department moves into next phase; review to inform upcoming search for new police chief

photo by: Nick Gerik

The Lawrence Police Department's headquarters at 5100 Overland Drive is pictured Jan. 11, 2021.

The outside consultant the City of Lawrence hired to study its police department has been gathering input from city and police leaders — and will soon be gathering it from the public. And that feedback could help inform changes to police duties and shape the city’s search for a new police chief.

In the wake of national and local calls for police reform and protests against police killings of Black people and other people of color, the Lawrence City Commission agreed in October to pay Citygate Associates $117,833 for a comprehensive study of the police department and the creation of a new master plan. After an analysis of police policies and data, input from residents and interviews with city leaders and staff, consultants will make recommendations on what could be major changes to the department. That might include shifting duties from police to social service organizations or other agencies.

The consultants will also be providing recommendations for what qualities the city should look for in the re-envisioned department’s next leader.

The study is approximately at its halfway point. So far, it’s focused on analyzing city data and gathering input from city and police leaders and staff. But the next phase involves gathering input from residents of the broader community through a series of virtual listening sessions. City Manager Craig Owens said the city wanted Citygate to get to know the department, the city and the community so the consultants could help the City Commission achieve its goal of making the community safe and secure for everyone.

“They have continued to do exactly what we asked them to do, and that is just to dig in deep and get to know us, so they can give us their very best, objective, professional advice,” Owens said. “So we can move forward into a new place and do the work that our community expects.”

Police chief search

In May, the city announced that Lawrence Police Chief Gregory Burns Jr. would step down from his position just a few months after most members of the police union voted that they did not have confidence in his ability to lead the department, as the Journal-World previously reported. Specific reasons for the decision or the union’s vote were never publicly disclosed, and a separation agreement between Burns and the city included a “mutual non-disparagement” agreement and a $106,805 payment to Burns.

As part of the study, Citygate consultants will help develop a position profile that the city will use in its search for a new chief. Capt. Anthony Brixius has been serving as the interim chief of the police department, and Owens said the city had held off on beginning a search for a new chief so that the study, and the operational changes that come out of it, could guide the selection of a new chief and make sure the person was the “best fit” for the future.

“(To make sure) that they have the knowledge, skills and abilities — and enthusiasm — to lead the work that we have ahead, and to be our expert adviser on the work that is outlined,” Owens said.

Owens said there was not yet a specific timeline for the police chief search, which will be nationwide, but he said the city should be able to initiate the search before the completion of the entire study. The public engagement portion of the study will take place over the next four weeks, and it’s expected the study and consultant recommendations will be completed in late June.

The role of police

As part of the study and the creation of the master plan, the consultants will evaluate more than a dozen aspects of the police department’s operations. That includes aspects related to the internal workings of the department, such as a review of the department’s policies and processes, staffing levels and work environment. It also includes potentially fundamental changes to the role of police in the community.

City commissioners have questioned whether law enforcement officers should be the ones responding to certain problems, such as those related to homelessness, mental health or substance abuse, and whether social service organizations or other agencies would be better equipped to manage those kinds of issues. As part of the study, consultants will evaluate and make recommendations regarding equitable policing practices, protocols for public reporting, and alternative responses to calls for service that are traditionally handled by police, according to the city’s proposal for the study.

When the commission authorized the study, some commissioners expressed concern about how many of Citygate’s consultants came from law enforcement backgrounds and how that could affect the perspective of the study, as the Journal-World previously reported. Since then, Citygate has brought on board Lauren Brown, who is the Safe Communities Institute post-doctoral scholar and research associate at the University of Southern California and whose expertise includes social work, policy analysis, multicultural program development, community outreach and advocacy, according to the update.

Owens said his understanding was that Brown’s involvement was in response to the commission’s conversation and the desire for the perspective of someone outside of the law enforcement field.

A broad perspective

The consultants will rely on data, interviews and community feedback as the study moves forward.

Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire said one of the central parts of the study would be a data analysis. McGuire said the city worked for a couple of weeks to respond to an extensive document and data request from the consultants and ultimately gave them 1.5 gigabits of data and responses to 42 questions. He described the first data provided as an interim step for the consultants.

“As they identify trends or items that they want to dig further into, then they’ll follow up with additional data requests or interviews with the command staff,” McGuire said.

Consultants have also been conducting interviews with various levels of city staff and elected and appointed leadership positions. Thus far, consultants have conducted interviews with city commissioners, city officials, members of the city’s Community Police Review Board and police department leadership staff, according to a recent update to the commission. McGuire said consultants were now interviewing other police staff members, and that all the interviews sought to determine the strengths, weaknesses and challenges of the department, as well as potential opportunities for improvement.

Regarding the specifics of the data request, Owens said the review included data about police policies and procedures, trends related to service calls, the city’s agreement with the police officers union and data from the ongoing minority contact study that both the city and county have been involved in. As far as the interviews, Owens said that consultants were trying to get a feel for the culture of the police department and what issues and opportunities there were from both a police and community perspective.

“How are (police) attuned to the community, and how are they attuned to doing the work that’s required here in Lawrence?” Owens said.

McGuire said the consultant would be moving into the community input phase of the study beginning this week, and that virtual discussions with community stakeholders — with an emphasis on reaching all segments of the community — and virtual meetings were scheduled for the coming weeks.

“We want to give them a broad perspective,” McGuire said.

The first general public listening sessions will be held on Feb. 27 from 1 to 3 p.m. and on March 4 from 6 to 8 p.m., according to information McGuire provided the Journal-World. Zoom registration information and ways for residents to provide direct input to consultants will be available on the project website, citygateassociates.com/safe-and-secure-lawrence/.

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