Lawrence police union told former chief of staffing concerns, poor morale months before vote of no confidence, records show

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World File Photo

In this Journal-World file photo from Aug. 12, 2019, Lawrence Police Chief Gregory Burns conducts a news briefing at the Investigations and Training Center, 4820 Bob Billings Parkway.

Just short of four months before an overwhelming majority of the Lawrence police union voted that they had no confidence in their chief, union leaders had given him a letter detailing their pressing concerns, records show.

Among them, the union’s executive board listed staffing shortages and vacant supervisor positions, lack of trust, support and buy-in, and poor communication.

The letter also indicates that the chief and union disagreed on how police officers accused of wrongdoing should be investigated by the department. The union’s letter expressed concern about lengthy periods of leave for department employees facing internal investigations.

When now-former Chief Gregory Burns Jr. was sworn in with the Lawrence Police Department on Oct. 2, 2017, he said he wanted to meet with each employee within his first six months, according to the LPOA’s letter. Two years later, that still had not happened, and his “overall philosophy on several topics” was still unknown to department employees, the October 2019 letter states.

The Journal-World learned through city records that 92 members of the police union had voted that they did not have confidence in Burns, seven abstained and just one said he or she did have confidence, in a vote finalized Jan. 29. The reasons for the vote of no confidence had been unclear, and many members of the Lawrence community have voiced concerns about the lack of transparency during City Commission meetings and in letters to the editor submitted to the newspaper.

The city announced on May 18 that Burns was stepping down and that he would use up accrued vacation time until his official last day with LPD, June 12.

The newspaper filed a second request for city records under the Kansas Open Records Act and, last week, received communications between Burns, Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens and the chair of the Lawrence Police Officers Association, Officer Bill Bradford.

The records the Journal-World received still shed no light on the reason why the city agreed to pay Burns at least $106,805, less taxes and benefits, upon his departure despite no preexisting contract promising such a payment. In the separation agreement, Burns and city leaders also agreed to a mutual nondisparagement clause.

Correspondence obtained by the Journal-World indicates that the LPOA executive board communicated the union’s concerns to Burns in a letter and meeting in early October 2019. But at the union’s meeting on Dec. 16, 2019, members voted to place a vote of no confidence on the Jan. 27 meeting agenda.

Staffing issues

The LPOA’s letter to Burns offers a different explanation of some staffing shortages and departures of experienced officers than what the Journal-World previously learned from a department spokesperson.

Roughly 500 years of cumulative sworn experience have left the department in just the past couple of years, the Journal-World reported. The LPOA noted that those members left from the ranks of officers, detectives and sergeants. In social media posts alone from the beginning of 2018 through April of this year, LPD has announced the retirements of 15 sworn department members who each had more than 20 years of experience with the department.

A spokesperson for the department previously told the Journal-World that many of the experienced officers’ exits were the result of a big hiring boom in the early 90s, as those officers had recently reached retirement. However, “Multiple of these officers have advised the current state of the Department was at least a contributing factor, if not the sole factor, for their decision to leave, not stay past their earliest retirement eligibility, or seek other opportunities,” the LPOA’s letter states.

In addition, city records show that the department’s number of sworn staff members — including all officers, detectives, sergeants and captains — has fallen to a nearly 10-year low, despite the city’s population growing nearly 12% in the past decade.

The LPOA notes that despite a May 2018 study that found there was a need for additional officers just to maintain the current levels of calls for service, there had been no known requested budget increase for additional positions. To the contrary, some unused funds budgeted for salaries were instead used to help pay for construction of the new police headquarters in west Lawrence, the Journal-World has reported. The Lawrence City Commission voted in November to spend an additional $1 million to finish out some spaces in the LPD headquarters being built at 5100 Overland Drive.

City staff had recommended that the city use $1.7 million that had been budgeted for police department salaries but wasn’t spent because of vacancies. Divided by the average gross wages for department members in 2019, $1.7 million would pay for about 21 positions for one year, not including benefits.

The LPOA executive board said membership wanted some vacant sergeant positions and special assignments to be filled promptly. The leaders also requested that a captain be named to a deputy chief type of role to aid the chief in day-to-day operations.

In a separate email to Owens on Nov. 15, 2019, Bradford wrote that the LPOA members had confidence in the department’s captains and that move would “immediately alleviate” some concerns of members.

“While this is not a long-term solution, the E-board does believe this would improve the lack of trust, poor morale, and feeling of lack of support for officers and detectives,” Bradford wrote. “While we have not gauged the captains’ willingness to do this, we have confidence the captains would work together to handle any additional workload this would create.”

Lack of trust, support

The letter uses the analogy of team sports to explain that teams take on the persona, goals, attitude and qualities of their leaders.

“This is accomplished not by establishing rules and regulations, but by building relationships, establishing goals, developing plans to accomplish the goals, and mutual support,” the letter states.

The letter notes that it was unclear to the LPOA if goals for the department had been established but not communicated, and it cites some personnel announcements that had been delayed. It also says several members were concerned with Burns reportedly “referring to a retiring 25-year officer as ‘the retiree,'” and with his absence from another department ceremony.

“While members of the e-board are aware of your travel plans made prior to the scheduling of the recent retirement ceremony and your attempts at rescheduling the ceremony, this was not widely known to members,” the letter states. “The reaction exemplifies the current relationship between you and the employees of the Lawrence Police Department.”

Members also sensed a lack of support from the office of the chief, according to the letter. It says the department had experienced “several” officer-involved incidents during Burns’ time with LPD.

“Officers involved have been subjected to lengthy periods of administrative leave for criminal and Office of Professional Accountability investigations when they appeared to be doing nothing more than their jobs,” the letter says. “While the need for accountability is understood and desired, the lengthy processes and in some circumstances under unclear alleged policy violations, members do not feel they have the support of command staff and will not be supported if they are involved in similar incidents.”

The specific incidents to which the letter is referring were not clear, but one example the Journal-World reported on extensively was when rookie officer Brindley Blood said she meant to reach for her Taser and instead grabbed her gun and shot a motorist downtown when a traffic stop escalated on May 29, 2018. Blood was placed on paid administrative leave until she resigned in January 2019, and a judge dropped the criminal case against her for a charge of reckless aggravated battery that March.

The letter also notes that because of limited information sharing, several officers had been placed on leave or even separated from employment with no notice to staff or indication of whether the officer’s access to department buildings had been altered.

• • •

In another separate email to Owens on Dec. 9, Bradford noted that he appreciated Owens’ willingness to listen and said he wished this “had not been dropped in your lap.”

A separate records request asking for Burns’ calendar showed the chief was gone from the office for extended periods of time. It wasn’t always clear whether some of those absences were related to training or other official duties. But the calendar did make clear the times when an acting chief had to be appointed to oversee the department. In May and September of 2018, for instance, an acting chief was in place for approximately 29 of the 61 days in those months.

Prior to this week, Bradford had not responded to an email from the Journal-World on this topic since Feb. 26, when the newspaper first published an article about 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,” he said at the time, declining to comment further.

Bradford has not clarified why the union has declined to share its specific concerns publicly with the newspaper. However, he did email a statement Monday expressing confidence in Interim Chief Anthony Brixius, a 17-year veteran of LPD.

“We feel Interim Chief Brixius has demonstrated he is more than capable of effectively leading and managing the department,” Bradford wrote. “Senior command staff and Interim Chief Brixius have the LPOA’s support in continuing to lead us forward to provide positive direction in how we can best serve the community.”

The Journal-World has been unsuccessful in attempts to reach Burns.

Contact Mackenzie Clark

Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact public safety reporter Mackenzie Clark:

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