City leaders hear details about recommended budget’s proposal to reclassify or remove 8 police officer positions
photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo
The city manager’s recommended budget calls for removing eight officers from the Lawrence police force, replacing six of them with nonofficer positions and moving the other two to a new city division that will address issues related to homelessness.
The eight positions were one of the topics Lawrence city commissioners asked about during their study session Tuesday evening to go over City Manager Craig Owens’ 2022 recommended budget. The proposed budget reclassifies eight vacant patrol officer positions that have remained vacant because the city has been “unable to keep up with current levels of attrition,” according to a city budget presentation.
Four of the current vacant patrol positions would be reclassified into a “non-sworn response unit,” meaning that police officers would no longer staff those positions but the positions would remain within the police department. Two other vacant patrol positions would be replaced with a victim-witness coordinator and an accreditation analyst, both also within the police department. The remaining two positions would be reallocated to a new city division in the planning department.
Commissioner Lisa Larsen asked city staff what specific issues the four-member nonofficer unit would respond to. Interim Police Chief Adam Heffley responded that typically that unit would respond to circumstances that require a police report but don’t require an officer to make the report. For example, Heffley said that could be a car burglary that occurred the day before.
“Typically those personnel would be tasked with responding to things where there’s a report that needs to be taken but it doesn’t require a sworn officer or somebody with a badge and a gun to complete that task,” Heffley said.
Heffley said that as the department continued efforts to fill vacant patrol officer positions and fight the loss of qualified staff, the unit would make sure the department was able to meet service levels in the community. As the Journal-World reported last year, the Lawrence Police Department’s staffing was near a 10-year low amid turnover of younger staff and retirements of more experienced members.
Budget & Strategic Initiatives Administrator Danielle Buschkoetter told the commission that the police department has been struggling to fill a number of vacant positions for quite some time. She said the reclassification of the patrol positions aligns with recommendations in a recent outside study of the police department that calls for using nonsworn staff when possible. The commission hired Citygate Associates to complete the study last year following national and local protests against police killings of Black people and other people of color and calls for reallocation of some police duties. City staff is currently working on an implementation plan for the study’s 75 recommendations that will come back to the commission for consideration at an upcoming meeting.
In response to a question from Mayor Brad Finkeldei about how calls would be assigned to the new nonofficer unit, Heffley said that the department would outline various calls for service that would be appropriate for the unit to handle. Heffley clarified those decisions would be made by a patrol supervisor and not by emergency dispatchers. He said there would be explicit instructions that nonsworn staff members in the new unit should contact a uniformed officer if a situation “starts to devolve” and a uniformed officer is required.
Commissioner Jennifer Ananda asked whether there was a possibility that the unit could be part of Douglas County’s new initiative to create a mobile mental health unit to respond to people in mental health crisis. Heffley said that would be another conversation and that what the department was trying to accomplish was to cover the shortage in patrol officers and decrease some of the call load.
The two vacant patrol positions that would be removed from the police department would be reallocated to a new division under the Planning and Development Services Department. The new housing initiatives division would incorporate the planning department’s existing community development division, which currently concentrates on affordable housing and federally funded homeowner and neighborhood assistance programs, but under the proposal would be expanded to also focus on issues related to homelessness, according to a letter to the commission from Owens. The Journal-World will report more about the proposed division in a future article.
The recommended budget is $383.87 million across all funds, and in addition to the reclassification of eight police officer positions and the new division, includes more than $117 million in infrastructure and maintenance funding, $5 million for employee raises, and eight new positions, four of which are funded at least initially by federal or state grants. Though it does not propose an increase in the city’s property tax rate, it does call for increases in all three city utility rates.
The commission will further discuss the budget as part of its meeting next Tuesday. The city’s budget hearing is scheduled for Aug. 31.