Community Police Review Board voices concerns about how Lawrence police screen and track complaints
photo by: Journal-World File Photo
The city’s Community Police Review Board is concerned about the Lawrence police department’s process for dealing with potential complaints, with some board members saying that police’s role in deciding which concerns to investigate and the lack of transparency regarding that process is problematic.
Members of the board requested a report on the complaints made to police, and as part of its meeting Wednesday evening, it received a report that was less than one page. The report consists of seven sentences and a tally of the number of how many times people contacted the police department’s Office of Professional Accountability — a division of the LPD that handles both internal and community-generated complaints — and how many of those contacts resulted in personnel investigations.
From 2017 through 2019, there were 157 contacts to the OPA, 38 of which resulted in personnel investigations, according to the report. The report states that some of the contacts to the OPA consist of general inquiries or even compliments, but it did not provide information on how many of the contacts fell into that category. The report also states that most complaints or concerns are received and resolved by the employee’s direct supervisor, meaning they are not included in the tally. The report also states that if the OPA receives a concern or complaint that does not “rise to the level of a personnel investigation,” those are forwarded to an employee’s direct supervisor for resolution.
Board member Marie Taylor, who requested the report, said that there was not much value in it, because when a concern is communicated to the OPA, someone is making a judgment regarding whether that is a complaint and whether the complaint rises to the level of a complaint that the OPA should investigate. For instance, she noted that in 2017 there were 52 “contacts” to the OPA that resulted in 13 personnel investigations, with no other information.
“I’m struggling with the value of this information, honestly,” Taylor said. “Because there is no way to know how you get from being a contact to a personnel investigation, how that determination happens.”
Because of the way it was set up, the board has yet to review any complaints since the Lawrence City Commission created it two years ago. The board is in the midst of an effort to expand its scope, from only reviewing appeals of racial or other bias-based complaints to reviewing all complaints. Taylor said the information didn’t tell her what it would really mean for the board to look at all complaints.
Lawrence Police Department Lt. David Ernst, who submitted the report, responded that the police department’s current policy is that violations of the department’s use-of-force and pursuit policies are investigated by the OPA. Though bias-based policing complaints are not required to go to OPA, Ernst said the practice is that they would also go to the OPA. He said an employee’s supervisor would handle “low-level” complaints, and allegations of a serious policy violation would be investigated by the OPA.
“I’m not alleging that what I’ve stated is going to bring you an ‘ah-ha’ moment of clarity, but at least letting you know the realm we are currently operating in,” Ernst said.
In response to Taylor’s comments that a “value judgment” was being made when potential complaints came in, Ernst said there is of course discretion among the front-line supervisors or the employee taking the complaint. However, he said that “many times” the person who receives the concern speaks to their superior, up to and including the police chief.
In addition to the information requested by Taylor, board member Stephanie Littleton requested for the report to include how many of the complaints came from community members, as opposed to being filed internally; how many were identified as racial or other bias-based complaints; and information about this year’s investigations.
Ernst provided that information verbally to the board. He said of the 38 personnel investigations that occurred from 2017 through 2019, 15 were generated by community members and three were identified, by the person filing the complaint, as racial or other-bias complaints. So far this year, he said there have been four personnel investigations, two of which were generated by community members and none of which were self-identified as bias complaints. In response to questions from the board, Ernst said that a complaint that is not self-identified as bias could potentially be identified later as such by the OPA, but he was not aware of a time that had happened recently.
Board members expressed concern that the “screening process” for contacts could affect which concerns the OPA decides to investigate and which are subsequently forwarded to or remain in the hands of supervisors for resolution. Board members also voiced concern that there was not more information available about the contacts made. Board member Jennifer Robinson said she agreed with Taylor and that she thought the process needed to be standardized.
“I feel like without a standardized process for collecting complaints and tracking those and notifying complainants of the process and what it’s going through, it seems to be very difficult to move forward in a meaningful way,” Robinson said. “And also I want to say that putting the burden on the complainant to identify a bias-based policing encounter or putting the burden on the police department to identify that, it seems like you would likely to be undercounting and under-identifying those encounters.”
In response to a question from the board about how contacts and complaints are tracked, Ernst said that the OPA uses a spreadsheet to track its complaints and that the patrol division has a separate process that tracks performance issues. He said the department is working toward switching to a new software system that would ideally track all contacts and complaints. He did not have a timeline for when that system would be implemented.
Ultimately, several board members said that they were interested in making a policy recommendation in the future about changes to improve the tracking process for contacts and complaints and how that information is provided to the board and the public.