Lawrence City Commission votes to form work group to reconsider city’s process for complaints against police

photo by: Journal-World Illustration

Lawrence Police Department logo, Lawrence City Hall

Two years after the city initially sought improvements, City of Lawrence leaders have approved a proposal to form a work group to review and recommend changes to how the city handles complaints against police.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission voted 5-0 to approve a proposal to form a Community-Police Oversight Work Group to review and make recommendations related to the police complaint process and the city’s Community Police Review Board. The work group is meant to be a collaboration that includes board members and the police, and Commissioner Amber Sellers said she was glad the city was bringing the “two lenses” together to shape the process around police accountability.

“We have folks who are committed to doing the work, (and) they’re committed to doing the work right,” Sellers said. “And I feel like this is the first step to us doing this right and bringing a group together that can truly shape the system and process around police accountability.”

Dozens of complaints have been made against police since the commission created the board in 2018, but the board has yet to review any because of the way it was set up, and its members have called for stronger oversight.

In June 2020, the commission directed the board to review its governing ordinance — which was arrived at after a long debate and pushback from the police union — and the board worked for over a year to draft changes. However, the commission subsequently commissioned an outside study of the police department, which included a recommendation for a more collaborative process, and on Jan. 5 the commission directed the board to launch a new, broader review, which led to the work group proposal.

The proposal, which was developed by the police chief, city staff and the board, calls for the group to review and make recommendations regarding the complaint process and the board’s role in that process. The proposal lays out expectations regarding the work group’s purpose, membership in the work group and particulars of the process, including facilitation by a third party.

Under the city’s current complaint process, complaints against police filed both internally and by members of the public are investigated by the employee’s direct supervisor or by a division of the police department. The board only reviews complaints dealing with racial and other bias and only if the person involved decides to appeal the department’s decision. An appeal must be submitted in writing within 14 days to be valid. The board has never reviewed a complaint under the current process, and board members have previously called the process a “rubber stamp” and “window dressing” for the police department.

The scope of work outlined in the proposal comprises 10 elements. Those include assessing the existing complaint process to identify concerns and conflicts as well as opportunities to improve trust and transparency, and assessing the board’s role and authority in serving in an advisory, oversight and/or review capacity. Regarding membership, the proposal calls for the work group to consist of five residents representing diverse communities, three board members, the police chief, a member of police department command staff, and two police union members.

City staff asked the commission to consider four questions regarding the formation of the work group. Those were whether the proposed scope of work meets the commission’s expectations; whether the commission agrees with the proposed membership; whether the commission supports hiring a third-party facilitator; and whether the commission would like to make any changes to the plan for public participation. Commissioners did not ask for any changes to the proposal, but did have some questions about the process.

Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen asked why the proposal called for two police department staff members and two police union members when the recommendation from the outside study called for only one representative for each of those groups. Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire, who worked on the proposal, said the main reason was for “redundancy,” if for vacation or other reasons one person couldn’t be there, the group would still be represented. Larsen confirmed with McGuire that all four police department representatives would be voting members, and he added that the goal is for the group to work toward consensus recommendations as part of a collaborative process. Larsen said when it came to reaching a consensus, it would be vital that the facilitator was trained for such work.

The city anticipates it will cost $30,000 or less to hire a third-party facilitator for the work group. The proposal calls for a four-month time frame for the review once work group members and a facilitator are selected.


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