Community Police Review Board votes to continue work on ordinance to increase its powers despite recommendation from police study

Members of the Community Police Review board, including board members Jane Gibson, top left, Marie Taylor, Bill Graybill and Sanjay Mishra discuss recommendations regarding the board from Citygate Associations as part of the board's meeting June 10, 2021.

Contrary to a recommendation from a city consultant that the Community Police Review Board stop its work drafting an ordinance to increase public oversight of complaints against police and begin a new process, the board plans to continue its work with some modifications.

A recently completed study of the Lawrence Police Department by Citygate Associates, which was commissioned by the city, recommended that the board “stop unilaterally creating new versions” of the ordinance and instead form a working group made up of the board and key stakeholders, including the chief of police and a police union representative, to design a “best-practices-based system.”

“While Citygate is not opposed to all elements in the proposed new ordinance, we are concerned that its adoption at this time, given the lack of trust in the relationship between some in the Police Department and the CPRB, would be problematic and would likely lead to more frustration,” the report states.

Citygate’s recommendation was based in part on survey responses received from some police department employees that expressed mistrust in the board and a 2001 study that claimed buy-in to an oversight system from key participants, including the police chief and police union leadership, is more important than the system’s structure.

During the board’s meeting Thursday evening, several board members questioned the recommendation from the consultants. As part of the meeting, the board also clarified that although the City Commission has received Citygate’s recommendations, it has yet to vote to implement them.

“A lot of work has gone into this, collaborative work has gone into this, and we cannot abandon this on the advice of CityGate,” board member Sanjay Mishra said. “We must plow forward.”

Based on its research into community oversight boards, the board has been working on drafting the ordinance to strengthen its oversight and review of complaints for about a year, recently gathered public input on its working draft of the ordinance, and planned to start making changes to the draft based on that feedback. Once the board has finalized its working draft, it will go to the City Commission for consideration.

Other board members agreed that the board should continue its work as planned unless it got different direction from the City Commission, though the board did vote to ask the police department to provide input on what would be the best mechanism for its employees to provide feedback about that draft ordinance once the board has arrived at a final version.

Board member Jane Gibson said the current ordinance governing the board, which has resulted in the board reviewing no complaints since it was created about three years ago, effectively made the board a public relations arm for the police department. Gibson said the work that the board had put in over the last year trying to improve the ordinance was important to continue.

“We spent a year trying to improve that ordinance so we can actually live up to the spirit of what the City Commission said we should do,” Gibson said. “So whether or not we are a part of this working group, I want us to move on, I want us to put our energy into this work that we’ve been doing now for the last year.”

Gibson and other members agreed the question of trust raised by the Citygate report was an important one to address. However, Gibson said she believed Citygate asserted the issue of trust without a sufficient basis because the report’s survey of police employees was not a statistical sample and a study it referenced was 20 years old. On the board’s part, Gibson’s opinion was that it’s not that the board has a reason to mistrust or celebrate the police, it’s that the board has not had data to make those conclusions.

Board member Marie Taylor also said she did not know what to make of the comments about a lack of trust. Taylor said the board has done nothing but ask questions about police processes for handling complaints. Taylor and other board members agreed that they were reviewing best practices in other cities to inform the working draft of the ordinance, and the process of creating a new community oversight role in itself creates an inherent friction with police that she is not sure can be avoided.

“We saw even in the literature that we were reviewing that there is always some friction and conflict when you have a review committee that’s looking over the shoulder of government actors, right?” Taylor said. “I think that we can’t solve that problem. But we cannot say that we don’t have a right to have a review board that looks into complaints, even if makes them feel like they’re being watched, because that is our function.”

Taylor also said she thought Citygate misunderstood where the board was in its process, and that it had always been her assumption that once the board finalized its recommendation that the police department could provide feedback to the commission regarding the draft ordinance just as it had with the original ordinance governing the board. Board member Jenny Robinson and others agreed that the police department should have a mechanism to give feedback, but Robinson said that the board’s main goal was not to represent the views of police.

“I think we did get some feedback from officers in our surveys, but as far as trust goes, it’s important from my perspective as a social worker to have a partnership (with police),” Robinson said. “However, we are the voice for community members, and they’re who we are serving.”

Ultimately, the board voted 5-1, with Bill Graybill opposed, to request a report from the police department about the most appropriate way to get feedback from police on the draft ordinance and for the board to bring forward potential changes to the draft ordinance based on the previously collected survey feedback for discussion at the board’s next meeting. Graybill said he voted against the motion because he thinks the board has spent enough time drafting the ordinance, and that he thought it should go to the City Commission for feedback at this point and commissioners could tell the board whether they thought more work needed to be done.

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