Criminal justice council member says communication on work related to race needs to improve

photo by: Lawrence Journal-World file photo

In this file photo, criminal defense attorney Shaye Downing is seen in Douglas County District Court. Downing, who serves on the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, said on Tuesday that the council needs to do a better job communicating its work on addressing issues related to race and ethnicity in the criminal justice system.

The Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council needs to do a better job informing its members and the public on the work it is doing to address issues related to race and ethnicity, a member of the council said Tuesday.

Shaye Downing, a criminal defense attorney serving on the council, said during the CJCC’s meeting that she felt out of the loop on the council’s law enforcement contact study that began in January, which would hinder her ability to answer questions she gets from the public.

She said that lack of awareness seems to only be a problem for the work the council is doing on race and ethnicity, which allows the public to get the impression that it is not worried about those issues.

“We as a group are not doing a good job of advising people as to what is happening,” she said. “The impression that is being left is that (racial disparity) is the topic that we are not addressing.”

Downing made the comments during the meeting after Criminal Justice Coordinator Mike Brouwer informed the council that researchers conducting the law enforcement contact study in Douglas County would soon provide an update to the council. He said the researchers would also hold a public meeting during their visit to Douglas County on March 23.

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinator Mike Brouwer presents information to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council during its meeting on Tuesday, March 10, 2020.

The contact study, which began in January, is collecting data to document the racial breakdown of motorist and pedestrian stops and searches among each law enforcement agency in Douglas County. Karrey Britt, a spokeswoman for Douglas County, told the Journal-World the upcoming public meeting will be another information session about the study’s process. The researchers held similar community information meetings in 2019.

But Downing said she felt she did not have enough information about the study to participate in a public meeting.

“If there are going to be meetings, I think we should all have a basic understanding on this council where we are and what we are doing,” she said. “With this particular topic, I don’t have the same understanding that I have about what we are doing for the mental health community … I don’t have the same understanding where we are on this particular part of our task.”

Downing’s comments were similar to some of what the Rev. Edith Guffey, a former CJCC member, said about the council in January. Guffey said at the time she believed the council wasn’t focusing enough on addressing race and ethnicity issues in the criminal justice system while other issues, like mental health, were higher priorities.

On Tuesday, Downing said she knows the council is investigating those topics, but it isn’t being communicated clearly enough with the public. She said communicating the council’s work to the public could help alleviate a perception that no work is being done on it.

“We as a council could assist in changing, if not the narrative, at least the impression our community has,” she said. “Because, if you’re not, you’re creating a level of tension that doesn’t need to be there.

“When we have so many other great things going on for the things that we are doing, the lack of information on this feels even more profound,” she later added.

District Attorney Charles Branson, who is also a member of the CJCC, said Tuesday that Downing’s comments made him realize that the council was not doing enough to report the council’s work. He suggested the CJCC create a reporting mechanism for its work groups, including the race and ethnicity disparities work group, to share information publicly. That way, the members of the CJCC could go back and look at what the groups are doing and be able to answer those questions from the public, even if they were not serving on that work group.

Brouwer said Tuesday he appreciated their feedback, noting it could help improve the council’s process of sharing information. One such way the council could do that is by taking County Commissioner Michelle Derusseau’s suggestion to have the council’s work groups give regular updates during the council’s meetings, which would then be published on the CJCC’s website.

“You gave me a ton of insight as to how I can improve our communication to make your experience better and our communication with the public better,” he said.

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