Lawrence police union takes vote of no confidence in chief, records show
photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World File Photo
An overwhelming majority of the Lawrence police officers union has no confidence in the city’s chief of police, but the chief has indicated that he’s staying put.
Acting on a tip, the Journal-World obtained city emails that revealed the Lawrence Police Officers Association in late January held a no-confidence vote in regard to Police Chief Gregory Burns Jr. In the vote, 92 of the union’s 100 voting members answered “no” to this statement: “I have confidence in Chief Gregory Burns Jr.’s ability to effectively administer, manage, and lead the Lawrence Police Department.” Seven voters abstained; one voted “yes.”
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Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens said Wednesday that Burns is currently leading day-to-day operations of the police department. Asked whether he has confidence in Burns, Owens did not give a direct answer.
“In general, I won’t comment on personnel matters or specific performance of people on our team,” he wrote in an emailed response to the Journal-World’s questions on Wednesday. “I am confident in the service level we are providing to the community and expect that we will be continuously getting better as we move forward.”
The chair of LPOA, Officer Bill Bradford, did not respond to questions about what concerns the union had with Burns that led to the vote of no confidence.
“The LPOA wants to ensure our members are given the greatest opportunity to most effectively serve the people in this community, as that is our highest purpose,” Bradford wrote in an email Wednesday. Multiple union officials did not respond to a follow-up question about why the union felt the public should not be made aware of concerns serious enough that the union believes the city’s top law enforcement officer should be removed from his position.
Burns, meanwhile, appears to have no intention of stepping down.
“I came to the City of Lawrence for the right reason, which was to carry on in my career with my calling to serve,” Burns told the Journal-World via email Wednesday. “I will continue doing my job. I have no further comment at this time.”
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The Journal-World filed a request through the Kansas Open Records Act for certain city documents, and on Tuesday received email communication between Owens and Bradford. It appears from the emails that the union did not intend to announce the vote of no confidence to the public as long as Owens ensured that “appropriate leadership” was in place by May 14, 2020. Otherwise, “the results of the vote will be shared publicly with the City Commission,” according to the emails.
In response to Bradford’s email stating that membership wanted to place the vote of no confidence on the union’s Jan. 27 meeting agenda, Owens said that he was “disappointed” but understood and that “I will admit this is new territory for me (and I suspect for you).”
Bradford, in turn, indicated that this vote is highly unusual for the department. He responded that it is “without a doubt new and uncharted territory.”
In an email, Bradford noted that LPOA members “appreciated (Owens’) offer to be held accountable and were understanding that decisions to make improvements take time,” seemingly referencing a previous in-person conversation that Owens had with LPOA leaders.
He also noted in an email just after the vote of no confidence that “As part of the motion, in a gesture of a good faith, the executive board was directed to communicate membership’s desire to respect and trust Mr. Owens’ six-month plan to address the Police Department’s lack of leadership.”
It was unclear from the context of the email exactly what the plan entailed. Owens said Wednesday that the reference to a six-month plan was in reference to his process to create a Community Strategic Plan. Owens is in his first year as Lawrence city manager and is currently leading a strategic planning process.
“Once we have that in place our organization will be better aligned and our leadership will have a clearer picture of where we are headed – in all departments,” he wrote in response to a question by the Journal-World.
It was unclear Wednesday whether all departments in the city were having six-month plans developed to improve their performance or whether that was a special step that had been taken for the police department.
After releasing the emails to the Journal-World on Tuesday evening, Owens issued a brief statement that said he was “concerned and disappointed” for all affected by the recent vote, but he noted that LPD’s officers signal solidarity and high expectations for leadership and that such attributes “show engagement and passion for their work as well as a desire for continued professional growth.”
Capt. Anthony Brixius told the Journal-World Wednesday that the department would not comment on LPOA’s vote or about the status of LPD leadership in general.
Burns was sworn in as chief on Oct. 2, 2017, coming from a job as assistant chief of the Louisville, Ky., Metro Police Department’s Support Bureau. He became the city’s first African American police chief since a black man held the position of “city marshal” for a number of months back in the 1890s.
He’s overseeing a department composed of 86.5% white officers, according to an October 2019 demographics report.
The Journal-World asked Wednesday whether LPOA’s executive board could dispel any concerns that racial issues are part of the union’s concerns. Neither Bradford nor any of the other executive board members — Detective Sam Hiatt, Officer Justin Trowbridge or Officer Kevin Henderson — responded to that question or others posed to the union.
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