Lawrence police chief hopes ‘purpose-driven policing’ strategy will free up officers to do more relationship-building and problem-solving

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Lawrence Police Chief Rich Lockhart speaks to the Lawrence City Commission during its meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023.

The Lawrence Police Department is working on some changes that Police Chief Rich Lockhart thinks will make better use of its staff, including delaying its responses to some calls that it determines are less severe and less urgent.

At Tuesday’s Lawrence City Commission meeting, Lockhart gave a presentation to city leaders about how the department will introduce a “purpose-driven policing” strategy. The presentation took place during a work session, which commissioners don’t take any action on.

Lockhart said the strategy stems from examining the department’s current workload for patrol officers and from a realization that, in general, the department is limited by its current staffing levels. It’s authorized to employ 152 officers but only has 138 on staff, and 12 of them are currently out on some sort of leave or for another reason.

“This is a level that doesn’t permit delivering the level of service the community expects, and the department needs to fulfill its mission,” Lockhart told commissioners.

He said that was the starting point the department used to develop its “purpose-driven policing” strategy for both patrol officers and for investigations. The strategy involves two big changes: asking officers to focus on some emergency calls and delay their response to other “low-priority” incidents, such as car break-ins or other incidents where a suspect is no longer on the scene, and asking detectives to focus scarce resources on the most severe and solvable felony investigations.

The types of emergency calls Lockhart was referring to, broadly speaking, are ones where there isn’t an immediate emergency and in which a delayed response wouldn’t affect the outcome of the incident. Instead, such calls would be directed to a “teleserve” department member to take a report for later contact once an officer is available.

“This is a cultural change not only for the department but also for the community,” Lockhart said. “We’re a community where when we call the police, we expect an immediate response.”

The result of that shift, Lockhart said, is it frees up officers to devote more time to relationship-building and problem-solving, two things they’re already doing. Lockhart said he’s seen positive results as the department has increased foot patrols in downtown Lawrence, and being able to spend more “committed time” — that is, time that an officer is committed to an activity and unavailable to respond to another call to service — doing things like that would be a net positive.

Lockhart also shared some ways the department is looking forward. To address its staffing shortage, he said the department will host an academy class of 11 officers in January, and he also plans on developing a comprehensive recruiting strategy focused on identifying areas where the department can recruit underrepresented population groups, such as from historically Black colleges and universities or military veterans. He said he wants the department to be staffed at a level that will allow for a permanent downtown presence, more of a neighborhood-based presence and more.

“I think we have just a lot of opportunities here to reimagine community policing and policing in general,” Commissioner Amber Sellers said. “It’s not perfect — juxtapose that against some of the things that we’re seeing in other aspects of our policing, with our (Community Police Review Board) and our work group. We do have a lot of work to go with this, but I feel like this has been promising and I look forward to seeing how we grow and continue to build out some of these strategies that we’re using to reimagine and redefine what public safety looks like in our community.”

In other business, commissioners:

* Voted to postpone a public hearing on the establishment of a Neighborhood Revitalization Area and Community Improvement District at 900 Rhode Island St., the Turnhalle building, until the City Commission meeting on Jan. 16, 2024.

This is the second time commissioners have postponed the hearing, which concerns development incentives for a project to convert the building at the southeast corner of Ninth and Rhode Island streets into an event hall and restaurant. The delays have occurred as a third-party analysis to determine how much assistance the project needs is still in the works.


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