Health department says police are aware of house parties and health complaints from weekend; agencies disagree on who is responsible for enforcement
photo by: Contributed Photo
Updated at 6:57 p.m. Monday
Photos and videos of crowded house parties in Lawrence garnered attention this weekend, including from national media, as they showed large gatherings of people not wearing masks.
But local law enforcement and public health leaders struggled to explain on Monday why no one was able to shut the parties down on Saturday night, with multiple agencies providing conflicting information about who was responsible for enforcement of public health orders.
In one video, posted on Twitter by University of Kansas associate professor Ward Lyles, a Lawrence police car drives past a house as a group of people walk up the steps to join an already packed porch.
“Masks? Social distancing? Nope,” Lyles writes in another tweet that includes an image of the house at 1138 Mississippi St. “Super spreader event? Yep.”
A second video from Lyles’ page that he wrote was taken “after the cops have come and gone” shows a still-crowded porch and blasting music.
The parties near KU and other universities were the subject of a report by NBC News. On Monday, KU issued public health bans to some individuals at two off-campus parties.
Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health Director Dan Partridge said images and videos from the Mississippi Street party and others from the weekend have the health department concerned.
“(Any) environments without proper social distancing and wearing masks, particularly, are of concern because those would be considered high-risk environments for exposure,” Partridge wrote in an email to the Journal-World. “Our community depends on everyone right now acting in a smart and safe way to stop the spread of the coronavirus, particularly to protect the most vulnerable in our community and our hospital system.”
The local health department has prohibited large gatherings amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A Douglas County health order prohibits gatherings of more than 45 people and requires people to wear masks outdoors in situations where 6 feet of distance cannot be maintained. Another more recent health order is requiring establishments with a liquor license to stop selling liquor at 9 p.m. and to close premises by 10 p.m.
Partridge said the health department received eight complaints about house parties over the weekend, “and based on the descriptions in the complaints we believe all pertain to the same party,” he said. Partridge said these complaints were not referred to law enforcement because the health department had determined that the Lawrence Police Department had already been made aware of the activities.
When asked whether the police department was doing enough to enforce the public health order, Partridge said he knew the police had been responding to calls about house parties, “but the public should also be aware that the penalties and enforcement processes are slow and the legal tools at our disposal only allow for so much.”
An intentional violation of a public health order carries a civil penalty of up to $100 per violation per day, and the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office makes decisions on pursuing prosecution of such complaints, Partridge said.
Who’s responsible for enforcement?
It’s not clear, however, how the orders are to be enforced, or who is responsible for handling complaints. The Lawrence Police Department and the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office on Monday each said that the other agency was a more appropriate place to direct complaints.
Lawrence Police Department spokesperson Patrick Compton said the police department’s ability to enforce local health orders — including issuing citations or arresting people for violation of those orders — “is limited by law.” Compton did not provide additional details on what law limits the ability of the police department in acting on public health orders, but the Journal-World is seeking clarification from the city.
He said the department has received multiple inquiries about enforcement measures regarding large parties over the weekend.
“Related calls were received as noise or loud music complaints. Our officers handled those calls as such, and no citations were issued,” he wrote in an email to the Journal-World. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the police department could have used the noise ordinance to break up the large parties, but the Journal-World is seeking clarification from the city.
As it relates to violations of public health orders, Compton said that “Generally, the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office handles these types of complaints, which any member of the public may bring directly to that office or to Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health.”
But Dorothy Kliem, a trial assistant with the DA’s office, said her office is not an “investigative agency.” She also said the DA’s office has not initiated any court actions for potential violations.
“The District Attorney’s Office is not an investigative agency, (and) in order to begin a civil proceeding we would require further investigation by law enforcement or the health department indicating an establishment has failed to voluntarily comply with the local health order,” she said.
Kliem said that the onus is on law enforcement agencies or the health department to give the DA’s office the information it needs to take legal action against potential violators of health orders.
“Before the District Attorney’s Office can take criminal or civil action, an investigation must take place by either law enforcement or the health department and a report of that investigation must be forwarded to the District Attorney’s Office for review,” she said.
Compton wrote that if another agency were to receive a complaint about a violation of a health order associated with a call to the police department, the police department would provide any reports or information associated with the call to the fullest extent possible.
According to the Lawrence Police Department’s 24-hour call log, there were 25 calls for noise complaints between 6 a.m. Saturday and 6 a.m. Sunday.
Three calls were made to law enforcement on Saturday after 8 p.m. for a location in the 1100 block of Mississippi Street. One call was for a request to speak to an officer, and two others were for noise complaints. The log also shows three calls for noise complaints for a house in the 1700 block of Kentucky, where the Journal-World also received a photo from a large party on Saturday.
photo by: Contributed Photo
KU’s disciplinary action
KU said that it issued public health bans on Monday to individuals at two off-campus residences for activities documented over the weekend related to the school’s first football game. The University of Kansas football team played its season opener at 9 p.m. Saturday, right across the street from the Mississippi Street party.
KU spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said that the university has received reports of off-campus partying, but that most of the time there has not been enough information to act on. She said if a report of partying doesn’t list the names of individuals or organizations involved, it can be difficult for KU to discipline people.
“We are acting when we have enough information to pursue a public health ban and/or the student conduct process,” she said in an email. “Most of our students are doing the right thing, but we will not tolerate selfish and irresponsible behavior that puts the health and safety of our community at risk.”
KU’s rules for students this fall semester include wearing masks and observing social distancing.
Barcomb-Peterson didn’t specify how many public health bans KU had handed out related to weekend football parties, nor how long the bans would be in effect. She did not address a separate question from the Journal-World about how many students have been disciplined for violating KU and local rules related to mask wearing, social distancing and gatherings.
Just before the fall semester began on Aug. 24, however, KU issued public health bans to members of two fraternities that had been pictured partying outdoors without masks on. Those bans, issued by Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer, lasted for two weeks and applied to all campus facilities except the Watkins Health Center.
When asked whether the various health orders put in place by the county’s health officer are doing enough to keep people safe, Partridge said that the health department believes the public health orders have proved effective. Moving forward, he said, it’s all about behaviors.
“Past compliance doesn’t guarantee future compliance. That’s why our Unified Command leadership is focusing … on increasing future compliance,” he said.
Note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct cost of a civil penalty for a public health order. The health department had previously stated an incorrect number.