City seeks residents’ views on systemic racism as part of reconsideration of police force’s role, budget

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured Thursday, July 7, 2016

The City of Lawrence will soon be starting a conversation about systemic racism to help inform potentially fundamental changes in policing and other city functions — with the city’s multimillion-dollar police budget in the balance.

Following local and national protests this year over police killings of Black people and systemic racism, Mayor Jennifer Ananda in June called for the city to consider about a dozen reforms, including reallocation of some police funding for social services. The Lawrence City Commission later agreed to consider the changes and to create a process for residents to weigh in on the discussion.

With the coronavirus pandemic ongoing, the city is partnering with the University of Kansas Center for Public Partnerships and Research to use kiosks to collect input from residents. The Human Relations Commission proposed the community kiosk project, which will use the kiosks to ask residents about systemic racism in public safety, health, education, economic development and housing, according to the proposal. The proposal states the kiosks can be used to gather information that can be used to identify policies and ordinances that exacerbate racial inequities.

Assistant City Manager Casey Toomay, who serves as the city staff liaison to the HRC, said the kiosks allow people to respond to questions using a scale based on icons that depict various emotions, and that the plan is to ask a series of questions over several weeks. Toomay said the kiosks would be at strategic locations throughout town, with the potential for online feedback as well, and the responses gathered from residents would then be provided to the City Commission.

“I think the intention is to listen before we talk,” Toomay said. “… This is a way to have the Human Relations Commission listen, and to share with the City Commission what they hear.”

The City Commission approved the HRC’s proposal for the city to partner with KU CPPR for the community kiosk project on Sept. 8 and authorized city staff to work with the center to develop a memorandum of understanding, which will go back to the commission for approval at a later date. There may be nominal costs to install the kiosks, but the exact cost to the city is not yet known, according to the proposal.

Toomay said the hope is that data from the kiosk project will be gathered in time to inform the work of a consultant the city is in the process of hiring to conduct an outside review of police department operations. In its request for proposals for that study, the city stated that it wanted a comprehensive report that would aid in the “transformation” of the police department in response to changing operational needs, community expectations and the national narrative around policing and race relations, as the Journal-World previously reported. At a minimum, it’s expected the study will cover the 12 potential changes the commission has identified thus far.

Regarding the kiosk project, Ananda said commissioners had to acknowledge that though they may reach out personally to various members of the community, the City Commission has no Black members. She said it’s really important to reach out to the whole community when the commission is having such serious conversations.

“Because it’s the place of the City Commission to dismantle and to address systemic racism that has occurred over time,” Ananda said. “And without that guidance we don’t necessarily have assurance that we are making the best decisions that will have the most positive impact upon particularly the Black community, but (also) the whole community.”

The potential changes the commission will consider include several that would affect how the city handles public safety. Those including establishing a mental health and addiction crisis response team and reallocating funds from law enforcement to partners or employees in these areas; reconsidering the city ordinance that charges law enforcement with its role in the community; and considering additional uses for the new police headquarters, including a central place of assistance for residents’ safety concerns. The full list of potential changes is available on the city’s website, lawrenceks.org.

The information gathered from residents, the consultant-led study and the commissioners’ ensuing discussions could result in significant adjustments in the city’s budget. Under the city’s 2021 budget, the police department has been tentatively allocated about $28 million, representing 29% of the budget for the city’s general fund and 8% of the total budget. The 2021 budget has been described as a placeholder budget because of the pandemic and the desire to account for calls for police and racial justice reforms.

Several cities, including New York, Austin and Seattle, have cut the budgets of their police departments and diverted that money elsewhere, though not without controversy, according to national media reports. Regarding the mixed reactions in other cities over such reallocations, sometimes referred to as defunding the police, Ananda emphasized that preventing the root causes of social problems is a far more effective strategy than only focusing money, time and energy on intervention. She said she saw Lawrence’s upcoming discussion as an opportunity to reconsider what the idea of public safety means.

“This conversation is nothing more than effectively addressing public safety for all residents,” Ananda said. “I think there is nothing complicated about that. We haven’t effectively done that as a community and as a nation.”

The HRC will further discuss the community kiosk project at its meeting Monday, including the designation of a subcommittee to work with city staff, the Community Police Review Board and others to develop questions regarding systemic racism for the project, according to the HRC agenda. It’s expected that the questions, memorandum of understanding and agreements to place kiosks will be finalized sometime in October.

Contact city reporter Rochelle Valverde

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rvalverde@ljworld.com

• 785-832-6314

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