Lawrence City Commission to discuss implementation plan for police study, decriminalization, other criminal justice reforms

photo by: Journal-World File Photo

In this file photo from Aug. 4, 2020, a Lawrence Police Department patrol vehicle is pictured outside the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center.

After a study of the Lawrence police department generated 75 recommendations for changes, city leaders will soon get an update on the changes that have been made so far and discuss other ongoing criminal justice reform efforts.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will receive an update on the implementation plan for the recommendations from Citygate Associates. The commission will also discuss the potential repeal or amendment of various city ordinances in an effort to decriminalize behaviors associated with homelessness and other social issues.

The commission called for the study and subsequent report 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 to social services. The subsequent 132-page report was presented to the commission in May and included 60 findings and 75 recommendations across various categories, including race-related issues and community engagement, handling of complaints against police, and alternative responses to policing such as mental health responses.

Since the completion of the Citygate report, city staff and the police department have been working on an implementation plan. The plan is not complete, but as part of Tuesday’s meeting, Interim Chief Adam Heffley will update the commission on the recommendations that are in progress so far.

Heffley said what is included in the commission’s agenda is an introduction to what will be a methodical process toward meeting the consultant’s recommendations.

“It will highlight the beginnings of our roadmap to improving department systems, structure and increasing relations and positive interactions with the community,” Heffley said in an emailed response to questions from the Journal-World.

The city recently began the application process for the police chief position, and Heffley said the new police chief would oversee the process once that person is hired.

Implementation plan

One of the key findings highlighted by Citygate was that community listening sessions showed that people of color and other marginalized groups, in contrast to white participants, almost universally reported negative experiences with police. Black participants shared stories of unwarranted traffic stops, unprovoked harsh behavior and unjustified arrests.

Some of the in-progress recommendations related to that issue involve incorporating procedural justice training concepts into general orders, performance evaluations and processes for promoting employees, according to a memo to the commission. The police department is also in the process of establishing an annual training related to public engagement, equitable policing, implicit bias, procedural justice and cultural competency.

Another key finding from the consultant’s report was the need to increase transparency and improve tracking and oversight of complaints against police. One step taken in that regard is the department’s implementation of a new software system, IA PRO/BlueTeam, which the department has said will better track uses of force by individual officers and complaints, as the Journal-World previously reported.

Other shifts are also in progress. The city’s draft budget for 2022, which the commission expressed strong support for on Tuesday, calls for removing eight vacant patrol officer positions from the Lawrence police force, replacing six of them with nonofficer positions and reallocating the other two to another department. Four of the 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 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 the city’s new Housing Initiatives division, which will work to address homelessness.

Many of the consultant’s other recommendations have not yet moved forward, but Heffley said that is by design. He said as many of the changes will have a lasting impact on department culture, the department will wait to address those changes until the new chief is in place so that person can oversee them. Ultimately, Heffley said the changes would go beyond simple changes in policy and structure.

“They will have a dramatically positive impact on the culture within the police department,” Heffley said. “We will be deliberate in our approach, and it will take time to fully implement all of the proposed changes and recommendations.”

Other considerations

In addition to the police study, commissioners agreed last year to consider other suggestions regarding police and criminal justice reform by then-mayor Jennifer Ananda. Those included the decriminalization of certain behaviors that could be addressed outside of the criminal justice system as well as the consideration of “8 Can’t Wait” strategies, eight policies that the police reform organization Campaign Zero recommends to curtail police violence.

Commissioners will also receive an update on those efforts as part of their meeting Tuesday. Regarding decriminalization, the commission will consider striking or changing various ordinances identified by city staff and the Douglas County Anti-Poverty Workgroup. Those include ordinances against removing contents of a refuse container, “aggressive” panhandling, violation of park hours, consumption of alcohol in public places, illegal camping, indecent exposure and jaywalking, among others.

The Douglas County Anti-Poverty Workgroup, which states in a letter to the city that its focus is decriminalizing poverty, identified other ordinances — related to things such as bicycles, skateboards and stopping at railroad crossings — that the group said are obsolete or too strict or need clarification. The workgroup also reviewed the city’s fee schedule and suggests that warnings could be given for most of the remaining ordinances and there should be a reduction in fines and fees for those who cannot afford to pay them.

City Attorney Toni Wheeler said city staff will be looking for direction from the commission regarding which ordinances the commission is interested in repealing or amending. Wheeler said staff also hopes to get an idea of the timelime and process the commission would like to see for considering the changes, which she expects will include community engagement around the issue.

When it comes to the “8 Can’t Wait” reforms, Citygate’s review of the police department’s policies found they are consistent with five of the “8 Can’t Wait” policies, including a ban on chokeholds and strangleholds; requiring officers to intervene and stop excessive force used by other officers and report these incidents immediately to a supervisor; and requiring officers to report each time they use force or threaten to use force, among others.

The consultant also reviewed the three “8 Can’t Wait” policies that the police department’s policies do not fully align with. The consultants state that department policy does not strictly prohibit shooting at moving vehicles; does not absolutely mandate that a verbal warning be given prior to the use of deadly force; and does not require officers to exhaust all other means prior to using deadly force. Consultants state the first two policies should be an issue for discussion between the department and the community. When it comes to a policy of exhausting all other means prior to deadly force, the consultants said the department’s policy follows case law and that they saw “no feasible way that such a blanket requirement can work in 100 percent of the cases.”

Police chief search

The search for the new chief began moving forward after the consultant’s study was complete, and the final interviews are expected to take place in November.

The department has been operating under an interim chief since May 2020, when the city announced that Lawrence Police Chief Gregory Burns Jr., the city’s first Black police chief, would step down from his position just a few months after most members of the police union voted that they did not have confidence in his ability to lead the department, as the Journal-World previously reported. Specific reasons for the decision or the union’s vote were never publicly disclosed, and a separation agreement between Burns and the city included a “mutual non-disparagement” agreement and a $106,805 payment to Burns.

The city announced in March it would hire a national search firm to oversee the search for a new police chief. The city has hired Ralph Andersen & Associates to conduct the search, and a search committee will also support the recruitment, according to city spokesperson Porter Arneill. Arneill said the committee includes Pastor Leo Barbee, County Administrator Sarah Plinsky, Lawrence Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Lewis, Community Police Review Board Chairperson Tonia Salvini, Lawrence Police Department Major Anthony Brixius, Lawrence Police Officers Association Chairperson Kevin Henderson, and Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire.

Arneill said the application period opened Aug. 16 and will close Sept. 27. He said the tentative schedule calls for resume reviews with the search committee the week of Oct. 18; first-round interviews with multiple panels the week of Nov. 1; and community and employee events with finalist candidates and the final-round interviews with the city manager and search committee the week of Nov. 15.

The brochure for the position states in part that the conversations regarding police reform and oversight that are going on around the nation are also taking place in Lawrence, and that the next chief “will need to not only be fully fluent in these topics but will also need to play a leadership role in evolving policing in Lawrence.”

The Lawrence City Commission will meet virtually at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, and some staff will be in place at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. The public may attend the meeting in person at City Hall or participate in the meeting virtually by following directions included in the commission’s meeting agenda, which is available on the city’s website,


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