Community Police Review Board strikes criminal background check requirement for board members, makes other changes to new ordinance

photo by: City of Lawrence

Some members of the Community Police Review Board discuss changes to the ordinance governing the board as part of the board's meeting July 22, 2021.

Citing its negative effect on board participation, the city’s Community Police Review Board has decided to remove a criminal background check as a requirement to join the board.

For about a year, the board has been working on a new version of its governing ordinance with the main goal of strengthening its oversight and review of complaints. As part of its meeting Thursday, the board agreed on several changes to the working ordinance based on recent input from a community survey, board discussion, and a legal review by city attorneys.

Board member Marie Taylor previously voiced concerns about qualifications to serve on the board, and some survey responses also questioned the qualifications. The board has already taken out several specific crimes that barred someone from serving on the board, but Taylor, who was not at Thursday’s meeting, said in comments provided to the board for discussion that the criminal background check should also be removed because the criminal justice system has been shown to have a “disproportionate and negative impact” on communities of color and other marginalized people. She also questioned the purpose of having such a requirement.

“If the purpose is to root out potential bias against law enforcement, what is the assumption that we are making about people who have served their sentences and their rights or lack thereof to participate in improving community police relations through board service?” Taylor said.

Taylor noted that no other city board requires a criminal background check. She said the question for the board was what purpose the criminal background check served and whether that purpose outweighed the potential chilling effect on fostering more diverse board participation. If the board were to keep the requirement, she said, it would also want to consider whether the ordinance should articulate the background check’s purpose and establish some parameters for how the information is used.

Board members agreed with Taylor’s points and voted unanimously to strike the criminal background check from the ordinance. Board member Jenny Robinson said she agreed it was a needless requirement that would disproportionately affect people in historically oppressed communities. Robinson also questioned what such a requirement assumed about people who had committed crimes in their past.

The board also agreed to make additional changes in response to a review from city legal staff and concerns expressed by the district attorney.

It has been three years since the City Commission created the board, but the board has yet to review any complaints made against police because of the limited review power it was given when it was set up, as the Journal-World has reported. 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 appeals the police department’s decision in writing within 14 days. The working draft of the new ordinance would broaden the board’s purview to allow the board to receive and review all types of community member complaints concerning police. It would also give the board the ability to call for an independent investigation.

But the city’s legal review raised concerns about that ability. The review states that for the most part, the proposed ordinance comports with federal, state, and local laws and other obligations of the city. However, the review also said that the board’s call for an independent investigation could not be mandatory, because that would run afoul of the city’s commission-manager form of government, which gives the city manager the authority to oversee the operations of the city and to execute its laws.

Before the review, the proposed ordinance said the board could “request” an outside investigation, but it also said that the city manager “will” appoint an investigator in response. On Thursday, the board agreed to change “will” to “may.”

District Attorney Suzanne Valdez also told the board in February that if a complaint against police also resulted in a criminal investigation, the board’s parallel review would present conflicts. In response, the board agreed to add a provision that the board would cease its review if a criminal or civil action was brought, but it reserved the ability to request updates about those cases.

The board will continue its review of the working ordinance at an upcoming meeting. Once the board has finalized its recommended changes, the ordinance will go to the City Commission for consideration.

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