City Commission candidates share views on police reform, homelessness and affordable housing
As part of a forum Saturday, Lawrence City Commission candidates answered questions about police reform, addressing homelessness and the city’s shortage of affordable housing, and increasing opportunities for minority-owned businesses.
In the virtual forum hosted by the Lawrence branch of the NAACP, the eight candidates who are actively running for a seat on the commission were told to provide timed responses about their priorities and what they saw as key challenges, and they were also asked to speak on the three more specific topics. Lawrence NAACP President Ursula Minor moderated the forum.
In response to how the city can be a leader in police reform, Milton Scott said the city should adopt measures of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Scott said the city should reimagine public safety in equitable ways, and that would mean hearing from the community as well as police officers. He said municipal and district courts should also be involved, and that minor infractions should not lead to police stops or bench warrants.
Incumbent Stuart Boley noted that a recent outside study of the police department found in part that police should be more engaged with the community, that the department is very disconnected with residents of color, and that there is tension over the Community Police Review Board’s ongoing effort to increase oversight of police complaints. He said he supported the recommendations in the study, including recommendations to improve community policing, training and data gathering.
Chris Flowers said the study also called for increasing neighborhood watch programs and that he is against that recommendation. He said the commission also needed to do a better job of asking questions to verify information from police.
Amber Sellers said the city needed to address police reform in both the community at large and in the school system. Sellers said the department must first identify measurable outcomes and strategies to ensure equitable policing practices, policy and training. She said calls for domestic disturbances, mental health crises and overdoses are social issues, and collaborative strategies with community agencies could reduce those types of calls.
Incumbent Lisa Larsen said implementing many of the study’s recommendations could help the city become a leader in community-based policing. She said the city must first address the lack of trust minority residents expressed in the department as part of the study, and that would take very frank discussions between all parties that must be followed by action.
Shawn Pearson agreed with Larsen that the city needed to start by addressing the lack of trust with public discussions, and he said he’d also like to hear from residents about which study recommendations they think would be effective. He said that the vast majority of police officers are very good at what they do, but that there needs to be more training, data collection and face-to-face interaction between police and the community, such as foot or bicycle patrols.
Bart Littlejohn said the only way to regain trust with minority residents was through transparency. Littlejohn said for the police department to be effective, there must be accountability, oversight and transparency, and that would involve a metric tracking system that identifies and promptly communicates policing problems so improvements can be made.
Ma’Ko’Quah Jones also said the city needed to build trust, as well as respect and understanding for law enforcement and the safety risks officers face as part of their duties. However, she said she wanted to see actionable items related to police reform, including limits to the scope of policing, more training on topics such as implicit bias and cultural competency, policies and trainings to reduce the use of force and encourage de-escalation, and more oversight and accountability.
Regarding how the commission can improve access to affordable housing and end homelessness in Lawrence, Littlejohn said the city needs to expand its reach and explore every possible solution with partners. He said people in social services have been overworked and under-supported, and the city needs to prioritize programs like “housing first” and make sure funding “matches our intention.”
Jones, who said she herself had experienced homelessness, expressed support for a housing trust fund, increasing and improving resources for those facing eviction, and, as the end of the pandemic eviction moratorium nears, passing a resolution to temporarily discourage evictions and rent increases.
Pearson said to help solve the housing shortage he’d like to see more partnerships, including with private businesses, the Realtors association and other stakeholders. He said the city needs to have more homeless shelters and to ensure the existing shelter has effective leadership.
Scott said the city needed to examine its utility rates in relation to affordability, and he expressed support for programs to address homelessness, public-private partnerships, and other housing types such as triplexes to address affordable housing.
Regarding affordability, Boley said he supported a significant city-funded utility assistance program and increasing residential density and permanent affordable housing downtown as part of the new downtown master plan. Boley and Larsen both supported a proposal in the city’s 2022 recommended budget to create a new city division dedicated to addressing homelessness and affordable housing. Larsen said developing a successful program to address homelessness will require a team of diverse entities that will include the city, the county and service providers.
Flowers said he’d like to see more projects like Monarch Village, a tiny home project for people experiencing homelessness. He said more people, including city employees, need to be paid a living wage. Sellers agreed that a focus on wages was important and said the city also needed a robust comprehensive housing plan and to pursue creative partnerships and supportive programs.
Regarding what the commission can do to increase opportunities for minority-owned businesses, Flowers, Jones and Scott all said one way the city could support minority-owned businesses is by contracting with them when it seeks outside services. Jones added the city needed to help build the capacity of minority-owned businesses to compete at that level.
Scott expressed support for incentive and other support programs and said the city should gather input from minority and women-owned businesses to identify how to remove economic or other barriers. Sellers said she appreciated that idea, but that she thinks local partners such as the chamber of commerce should develop initiatives to address barriers and provide recommendations for how the city can increase minority access to capital, incentives and tax abatements.
Larsen said the city should expand its Catalyst Program, an incentive program for industrial businesses, to include small businesses and provide support for new or existing minority-owned businesses. Pearson said the city should increase awareness of existing funding or loans for minority-owned businesses, and both Pearson and Littlejohn expressed support for mentoring programs. Littlejohn also spoke about the importance of livable wages, dissembling economic barriers for people of color and increasing access to incubators, incentives and higher education.
Boley said other candidates had great responses and that an additional staff position included in the recommended budget could be used to help accomplish some of those ideas. He also said the city should be more informed about supportive programs at the federal and state levels.