Community Police Review Board member resigns, citing lack of city support, concerns about police complaints

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.

A member of Lawrence’s Community Police Review Board has resigned in protest of what she sees as a lack of support for the board’s effort to strengthen oversight of complaints against police, and she said the board in its current form was “window dressing.”

Board member Jane Gibson recently submitted a resignation letter to the Lawrence City Commission and her fellow board members in which she expressed concern about the lack of transparency regarding complaints against police and a lack of support to improve oversight from city leaders, including the police chief. Police Chief Rich Lockhart disputes that claim and said he is completely committed to transparency.

In her resignation letter, Gibson wrote that she thought the board was designed under city ordinance to be window dressing, and that without support the board would likely remain in that situation. As the Journal-World has reported, though dozens of complaints have been made against police since the board was created in 2018, the board has yet to review any of those complaints or any of the police department’s investigations because of the limitations on the board’s review powers established by the ordinance.

“Ordinance No. 9324 has assured that the board will never see complaint investigations, key indicators of community-(Lawrence Police Department) relations,” Gibson wrote. “Because the board cannot effect improvement in community relations it cannot see, gaining access to complaints and their investigations has been the focus of most of the board’s work.”

Under the city’s current 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 Office of Professional Accountability. The ordinance allows the board to review only 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. In the nearly four years since the board was created, it has yet to review any complaints.

The commission directed the board to review its governing ordinance in June 2020, and the board worked for over a year to draft changes that would have given the board a broader ability to review complaints. But on Jan. 5, before that draft had been submitted to the commission, the commission directed the board to launch a new, broader process to consider police oversight and other issues.

Apart from the board’s limited purview, the department releases few details about the nature and resolution of complaints. For example, the board is scheduled to receive a report as part of its meeting Thursday about a recent complaint, and the report states only that the complaint was “an allegation of bias-based policing based on race,” and that the complaint was investigated by the department’s Office of Professional Accountability and whoever was involved was “exonerated.”

Complaint transparency

Part of the board’s working draft ordinance called for the board to be able to review all complaints made against police and the police department’s internal investigation with the ability to recommend an outside investigation if the board disagrees with the department’s finding. At the Jan. 5 meeting, some board members expressed urgency about the need to expand the board’s oversight and concern about beginning a new process. Gibson reiterated that sentiment in her resignation letter.

“The CPRB believes transparency in the complaint process is necessary to build community trust and confidence in the LPD,” Gibson wrote.

Gibson went on to claim that Lockhart, who was sworn in on Jan. 18, disagreed with the need for such transparency and even the appropriateness of it. Gibson wrote that on Feb. 16, three board members met virtually with Lockhart to discuss the new process, and that during that meeting he likened the relationship between the board and the police department to that of Ford and Chrysler, in which Ford “outsiders” have no right to know what Chrysler is doing.

Gibson concluded that without support from the police department, the city manager’s office and the City Commission, the city is unlikely to authorize the board to do the work necessary to fulfill its defining charge. She said as a result, she no longer believed she could play a meaningful role on the board.

Lockhart said Gibson’s letter was not an accurate representation of what he said, and didn’t establish the context of his comment. He said the comment about Ford and Chrysler was in response to what he believed was a board member’s lack of understanding regarding what notifications the police department provides people who file a complaint about the appeal process.

“And so what I said was that obviously that’s problematic when you’re overseeing the police department and you don’t understand what the police department does,” Lockhart said. “And the comment was it would be like Ford trying to oversee Chrysler; they don’t understand how they do what they do. And so that’s the context in which it was said. But it was never meant to say that somebody is an outsider and would be excluded from helping us reimagine policing the Lawrence way.”

Lockhart said his position has been clear from the beginning, and that he is “firmly committed to involving our community in reimagining our complaint process.” When asked whether he understood the board’s concerns regarding the need to see complaints to know what was going on, he said he did.

“I absolutely see that as a problem when you’ve got an ordinance that’s been created to provide review and a review hasn’t taken place,” Lockhart said. “I think that’s an issue. And that’s part of the reason why I want to make sure that we involve the community in moving forward to reimagine this process in a way that’s meaningful for our community and for the CPRB and for the City Commission.”

The current ordinance governing the board was created in June 2018 following concerns from the local chapter of the NAACP about disproportionate police enforcement against people of color and was meant to improve community oversight of complaints. That process included a long debate and pushback from the local police union, and the eventual creation of the ordinance as it stands today. At that time, Commissioner Lisa Larsen said she was concerned that the board did not seem to offer “as much teeth” as she would hope. However given the long process, commissioners expressed a desire to go ahead and get the board started and then come back to further discuss the ordinance in six months or a year.

New task force

The commission’s decision in January to launch a new process to reconsider the board was based on a recommendation from Citygate Associates. The commission hired Citygate to conduct a study of the police department amid local and national calls for police reform following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and a report was completed in May 2021.

Citygate’s report recommended that the board stop “unilaterally” drafting the new version of the ordinance so the city could instead convene a new work group that included the board and additional stakeholders. The recommendation calls for at least an 11-member group that consists of “the Community Police Review Board members,” the chief of police, one representative of the police union, the city attorney, and at least three minority residents of Lawrence.

The board is scheduled to receive Gibson’s letter as part of its meeting Thursday as well as a draft proposal for the larger work group, the Community-Police Oversight Task Force.

The draft project charter for the task force includes a proposed scope of work, membership and public engagement. One point of discussion will likely be how many board members are on the task force, as the proposal discusses including either three or all seven members. The charter states that a final draft will require endorsement by the board and approval of the City Commission. The board is scheduled to meet virtually at 6 p.m. Thursday.


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