Community Police Review Board wants to know how much power residents think it should have, plus other questions about the board’s future

photo by: Nick Gerik

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

After eight months of research and discussion, the city’s police review board is asking residents what they think of the board’s proposed changes to increase oversight of police complaints.

The changes are meant to provide greater transparency and accountability in the handling of complaints against the Lawrence Police Department, to improve the complaint process and to increase diversity of board members, according to a city news release. The board has developed a survey to ask residents about the proposed changes and more broadly about what responsibilities the board should have.

Because of the way it was set up, the board has yet to review any complaints against police since its creation more than two years ago, and board members have previously described it as a “rubber stamp” for the police department.

Board members called for the board’s power to be expanded in June 2020, and since then the board has drafted an ordinance that would broaden its review of police complaints and its ability to call for more investigation. The board has now released the draft ordinance publicly, and as part of the recently released survey it is seeking input on the proposed changes and residents’ views on the role of the board. The survey, which is available online and in paper form, asks residents various questions, including what other responsibilities, if any, the board should undertake to “promote positive and fair community-police relations in Lawrence,” according to the release.

As the Journal-World previously reported, the board has not reviewed any complaints against police 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 — only allows the board to review 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. Under the current setup, if the board receives such an appeal to review and it disagrees with the finding, it can only recommend to the city manager that the department investigate further.

The proposed ordinance broadens the board’s purview to allow it to receive and review all types of community member complaints concerning law enforcement actions, not just appeals of racial or other bias complaints. The survey asks residents to indicate how important it is for the board to review all community member complaints as well as the importance of having a means for residents to submit confidential complaints directly to the board.

Regarding the investigation of complaints, the proposed ordinance calls for a division of the Lawrence Police Department, the Office of Professional Accountability, to continue to investigate complaints, but for the board to have more potential actions following that investigation. Specifically, if the board found there was not enough evidence to support the police department’s conclusion or if it disagreed with the conclusion, it could request that the department do additional investigation or request that the city manager appoint an independent investigator to review the complaint. The survey asked residents whether the proposed complaint review process is fair and to provide comments on the topic.

Another concern of the board has been the demographic makeup of the board and the qualifications to be a member, which previously included several provisions that ban people with certain criminal histories. The membership requirements in the proposed ordinance call for board appointments, which are made by the mayor and approved by the City Commission, to include community members who “reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the community.” Requirements also call for a person to have no conflict of interest related to the duties of the board, submit to a criminal background check, and sign a confidentiality agreement regarding complaints and their investigation. The survey asks residents how well those requirements will help the board reflect community diversity.

Once all feedback is received, the board will consider potential changes to the draft ordinance based on the responses. Once finalized, the board’s recommended ordinance will ultimately go to the City Commission for consideration.

Residents can fill out an online version of the survey on the Lawrence Listens platform on the city’s website, Lawrenceks.org. Print copies of the survey are available at the informational window on the first floor of City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.

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