At police oversight forum, some participants say they want a third-party process for reviewing police complaints

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Lawrence Police Chief Rich Lockhart, right, speaks to the other folks seated at his table during a community forum hosted by the Community Police Oversight Work Group Monday, July 10, 2023 at the Carnegie Building, 200 W. Ninth St.

The city-appointed group tasked with recommending changes related to police oversight in Lawrence on Monday hosted the first of two planned community conversations on the topic, and some of the folks who participated were clear in their desire for a process that involves a third-party instead of internal review.

That was just one of the many suggestions gathered from community members at the forum hosted by the Community Police Oversight Work Group on Monday evening at the Carnegie Building. Including members of the 12-member body, about three dozen people attended the forum and provided input for the work group.

“This work is a heavy lift,” said Jonathan Morris, the consultant contracted with the City of Lawrence to provide facilitation services and support the work group. “It’s challenging, it’s complicated … but (the work group is) here to do that heavy lift.”

An external review would be a departure from the current process for the Community Police Review Board, the body that’s supposed to review complaints against police and other policing matters. 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, under a 2018 ordinance which remains in effect today. The board only reviews complaints dealing with racial and other biases and only if the person involved appeals the department’s decision in writing within a two-week period.

But that limited scope of review means the board has reviewed just one of the dozens of complaints made against Lawrence police since its inception, and its meetings were suspended earlier this year so the work group could recommend changes to that process.

The format for Monday’s forum saw seven small groups of attendees share their answers to a number of questions posed to the overall group; one of them asked what would give participants greater confidence in the complaint process and how it’s handled. Third-party reviews weren’t the only suggestion offered in this case — others said those stringent guidelines set in the 2018 ordinance should be less narrow, and that the review process itself should be more accessible and easy to understand.

Another question posed to the group asked what elements of accountability, public trust and oversight of Lawrence police are important to them that they’d want the work group to understand. Some folks said a greater level of accountability leads to a corresponding level of public trust, while others felt accountability is a two-way street. Other participants said the review board must be intentional in inviting non-dominant demographics to participate in its process.

But participants also had some answers to the question of what gives them hope that the work group and community at large can make meaningful progress in this space. Many said it’s a hopeful sign that the conversation about reforming Lawrence’s police oversight process has even started, and that there’s been a willingness to sit down, discuss and receive public feedback and guidance from the city and Lawrence Police Department.

From here, the Community Police Oversight Work Group still has more than a month before it’ll be forwarding any recommendations to the Lawrence City Commission. The work group will first have four more work sessions, one of them next Monday from 6-8 p.m. at Lawrence Fire Station No. 5, 1911 Stewart Ave. The other three work sessions are set for Aug. 14, Aug. 21 and Aug. 28, all at the same time and location.

The second community forum is set for Monday, July 31, again at the Carnegie Building, 200 W. Ninth St., from 6-8 p.m. It’s designed to be iterative, building on this week’s forum and incorporating new questions based on the feedback gathered so far.

The responses recorded during the first community forum, as well as a questionnaire for folks who couldn’t make it to the meeting, will be made available on the city’s web page dedicated to the work group.


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