Lawrence Community Police Review Board continues process to strengthen oversight of complaints, stresses need for outside investigation
The Lawrence Community Police Review Board is moving forward on changes to strengthen oversight of complaints against police and to ensure that more information about complaints is available to the public.
As part of its meeting Wednesday, the board voted unanimously to advance the draft of a new ordinance laying out the board’s powers for a final legal review with city attorneys. A division of the police department, the Office of Professional Accountability, decides what constitutes a complaint and conducts the investigation, and board members agreed that it was critical for the board to be able to request an independent investigation if the board disagrees with the conclusion of the police department’s investigation.
“I think the intent here, that’s driving everything, is this need for a just and objective outcome, free from bias and certainly heavy on objectivity,” Board Chair Tonia Salvini said.
Under the draft ordinance, the board can request that the city manager appoint an independent, third-party investigator if it determines further investigation is needed to resolve a complaint. As part of the discussion of that provision, the board agreed to strike a phrase that would have only directed the city manager to appoint the investigator “as budget allows.” As the board is an advisory board and does not conduct investigations, board member Marie Taylor said striking the qualifier was critical to ensure outside oversight of complaints. Taylor also said it would require a direct conversation at the City Commission level about outside investigation and a commitment to funding.
“If they don’t support it, we’ll find out fairly soon if they strike it from the draft ordinance,” Taylor said. “I think it’s important for us to put this out there as a solution.”
Under its current setup, the board has previously described itself as a “rubber stamp” for the police department. The current ordinance governing the board — which was arrived at after a long debate that included pushback from the local police union — allows the board to review only complaints against police that involve racial and other bias and only if someone appeals the police department’s decision in writing within 14 days. If the board disagrees with the finding, it can recommend to the city manager that the department investigate further.
As the Journal-World previously reported, the board has reviewed none of the complaints made against police since the Lawrence City Commission established it two years ago. The department determined all bias complaints were unfounded and no appeals have yet been made.
Under the board’s new draft ordinance, the board would review all complaints filed by residents against police and the police department’s investigation. In addition, the board would have the ability to conduct a preliminary review of complaints and to request an additional statement from the complainant if needed. Once the department’s investigation is complete, the board can request that the department do additional investigation if it determines it’s necessary. At the end of an investigation, if the board finds there is not enough evidence to support the department’s conclusion, then it can request the independent investigation.
Per state law, the board’s review and deliberations about complaints and investigations would continue to occur in executive session, according to the draft ordinance. However, in an effort to increase transparency and accountability, board members agreed with a suggestion from Taylor that the board should provide public summaries, redacted of personal information, of complaints, investigations and the board’s findings. Taylor said those summaries should provide more information about the circumstances of a complaint than existing police department reports, which provide only the general nature of a complaint and whether the department determined it was sustained or unfounded.
The board also agreed to make changes to the board member qualifications, which are also listed in the ordinance. Specifically, the board agreed with a suggestion from Taylor to eliminate provisions that prohibit people from applying to the board who have been convicted of certain crimes. She said that provision could disproportionately impact marginalized communities that she described as over-policed.
Following the final legal review, the draft ordinance will come back to the board for a final vote at its next meeting on Nov. 12. Once the board approves it, public input will be gathered on the draft before it goes back to the board for further discussion. After any changes based on the input, the board’s recommended ordinance will go to the City Commission for consideration.