Lawrence mayor calls for city to reallocate some police funding for social services
photo by: Screenshot/City of Lawrence
As protests against police killings of black people and calls for reform continue across the country, Lawrence Mayor Jennifer Ananda is calling for the city to reallocate some police funding to social services, among other changes.
At the opening of the Lawrence City Commission’s meeting Tuesday, Ananda called for various changes, which the commission agreed to consider as part of a future meeting. Ananda said that just as the city took quick action in response to the coronavirus pandemic, city leaders could not wait to combat systemic racism.
“As we did with COVID-19, it is imperative to take immediate steps to address issues directly related to racism, because it is a public health crisis that has been ignored for far too long,” Ananda said. “Over time, this disease has led to systemic and entrenched disenfranchisement and murder of our black friends, neighbors, partners and community members.”
Like other commissioners, the mayor cannot take unilateral action, and any changes would need to be approved by a majority of the commission’s five members. Ananda’s fellow commissioners said they were interested in taking action and further discussing the mayor’s suggestions, but didn’t voice specific support or opposition for any one item.
Commissioner Lisa Larsen said she agreed with Ananda that it was past time for the city to begin considering such issues.
“I look at this as a good opportunity to really get in and make some large changes that have been needed for quite some time,” Larsen said.
The mayor’s desire to reduce funding for the police and instead spend those dollars on social programs is similar to calls from some protesters and activists across the country, commonly represented by the slogan “defund the police.” Specifically, Ananda called for funds that the city allocates to law enforcement for mental health and addiction issues to be reallocated to establish a mental health and addiction crisis response team.
“This is the first step of many in defunding the police, to direct funds to the appropriate professions and community organizations that are equipped to address the issues that we have unfairly laid at the feet of law enforcement, expecting them to be social workers and crisis response workers,” Ananda said.
Ananda went on to say that law enforcement should not be responsible for the country’s unwillingness to address or fund those issues. In addition, she said law enforcement should not respond to other city ordinance violations, including complaints about noise, lawns or vehicles. She said the funding allocated to law enforcement for those activities should instead go to relevant departments or a single department that responds to ordinance violation complaints.
Ananda also called for the commission to decriminalize certain behaviors, and instead address such issues outside of the criminal code. Those include behaviors related to homelessness, drug use or addiction, mental health, and nonperson crimes.
The expansion of the Douglas County jail has been a contentious issue, and Ananda said that the Douglas County Commission recently challenged the city to help reduce the jail population, since the Lawrence police department has the most bookings into the jail. She called for the city to make changes to how it polices and prosecutes crimes that would accomplish that goal.
Regarding all the proposed changes, Ananda asked that the commission engage the community in discussion. She requested that the commission hold a listening session via Zoom, and said the city’s Community Police Review Board and Human Relations Commission should also let residents provide feedback.
Later in the meeting Tuesday, Ananda also reversed her vote on land use permits for the expansion of the Douglas County Jail, which was coming before the commission for a second reading. Ananda said though she was not in favor of the expansion, her vote to approve the permit last week was based solely on the city’s land use code. Tuesday, Ananda said her approach had been wrong and she no longer considered the jail expansion an appropriate use for the land. The commission voted 3-2 to approve the permit on second reading, with Commissioner Courtney Shipley again voting against the approval as she did last week.
The mayor’s requests Tuesday are in addition to actions she called for as part of the commission’s meeting last week. At that time, Ananda called for the Community Police Review Board and the Human Relations Commission to undertake projects aimed at addressing police bias and systemic racism.
In other business:
• The commission voted unanimously to enter a 20-year agreement with Evergy, formerly Westar Energy, for 8 megawatts of renewable energy annually, which city officials said would cover about 98% of all energy use for municipal facilities. The energy would be generated from the Ponderosa Wind Farm in Beaver County, Okla., and is projected to save the city about $100,000 per year.
• As part of its work session, the commission received the city manager’s recommended 2021-2025 Capital Improvement Plan. The CIP includes $60.7 million of projects for 2021 and will ultimately be determined by the commission as part of the upcoming 2021 budget process.
• The commission was originally scheduled to consider approving a new temporary layout for downtown Lawrence, created in part by architecture firm Gould Evans and Downtown Lawrence Inc., that limits parking to give businesses more space to safely operate during the coronavirus pandemic. That agenda item was deferred until next week’s meeting at the applicant’s request.