Of chief concern: Interim leader of Lawrence police stresses importance of conversations, accountability
photo by: Ashley Golledge
Anthony Brixius didn’t grow up wanting to be a cop.
After a childhood spent between Lawrence and Wichita, he had decided to become a teacher and, like his mother before him, enrolled at the University of Kansas, where he earned a degree in secondary education.
He soon realized, though, that despite his “commitment to service,” standing in front of a classroom all day wasn’t the best fit for him. Nor was a career in business, which he briefly tried in his early 20s.
The thing that eventually set him on the right path was a heart-to-heart talk with the parent of a teen he had coached in wrestling at Free State High School.
That parent was Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern.
“I actually went and had a conversation with him,” Brixius said of the now-retired sheriff, “and he encouraged me to apply for law enforcement.”
He took McGovern’s advice, which felt sound, he said, based on the people skills he had acquired, his connection to the Lawrence community and his experiences serving in the Army National Guard.
A few months after that, he was hired by then-Chief Ron Olin as a rookie officer in the Lawrence Police Department.
Seventeen years later, at 42, he is leading that department.
Brixius’ first stint at the helm came, as would his second, during a tumultuous time. When Chief Tarik Khatib retired in the summer of 2017, Douglas County was headed for a near-record number of homicides; the tally would hit 10 before year’s end, including a triple homicide in downtown Lawrence the day before Brixius handed the reins to a new chief, Gregory Burns Jr.
When Burns resigned less than three years later — on the heels of a no-confidence vote from the Lawrence police union — Brixius was again put in charge. This time he faced a department whose union had complained of low morale, staffing issues and poor communication under Burns, as the Journal-World has reported.
Perhaps more significantly, Brixius found himself facing a profoundly negative sea change in the public’s attitude toward police — alongside impassioned demands for reform — after George Floyd’s May 25 death at the hands of Minneapolis officers.
In a recent conversation with the Journal-World, Brixius wouldn’t say whether he would seek the beleaguered position of chief permanently — “That’s for other people to decide” — but it was clear that issues of department reform and other changes haven’t been put on hold until a new chief is named.
A different approach
Brixius said he’s actively involved in furthering some reforms that have been discussed at City Commission meetings and elsewhere. City leaders recently committed to a public review of police use-of-force policies, alongside a larger evaluation of the department.
Brixius supports a number of the suggested reforms; his department had already been talking about “internal” changes that could make the force more effective and responsive to community concerns. The three most important things identified by department personnel, he said, have been “leadership, communication and accountability.”
With the latter point he stresses “accountability at every level”: “It’s not just the supervisors holding the employee accountable,” he said. “It’s the employees holding each other accountable and supervisors accountable.”
In addition to working on internal communication, Brixius concedes that the department’s communication with the public could improve. The Journal-World in May reported, for example, that the department had been years late on compiling and releasing multiple public reports meant to gauge the department’s performance, including use of force reports. But some of that communication work is underway, Brixius said. For example, the department has recently released updated use-of-force and other reports, and a reexamination of the way complaints against the police are handled is underway.
But especially as the national outcry over police brutality escalates, the importance of conversation has become paramount, Brixius said.
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
“There’s a lot of emotion involved in that, and I think rightfully so,” he said of the reaction to Floyd’s killing. “It’s a horrible thing that sparked this, but if we’re going to take anything positive away it’s that we get to have conversations about what we’re doing” and “the right way to go forward.”
As Brixius well knows, having a conversation is often easier said than done. A Journal-World video recently captured an attempt by Brixius to converse with protesters who had been occupying a section of Massachusetts Street for days.
As Brixius, a person of color, begins calmly reading a statement, he is quickly drowned out by shouting and chants of “Black lives matter!”
Elsewhere on the street, his officers lined South Park against a backdrop of trees spray-painted with “ACAB,” short for “All Cops Are Bastards,” and throngs of protesters shouting obscenities at them.
As he talks about the protest more than a week later, though, it’s not the hostility he dwells on. He didn’t expect a receptive audience as police attempted to clear the street, even knowing that Lawrence police in recent years have not been the subject of high-profile cases of racist brutality that have been evident in larger cities.
“One of the things I know about the police officers here is that when things happen, whether it’s here at the Lawrence Police Department or nationally, police officers know that that’s going to reflect on them, even if they weren’t involved in it at all.”
What he does dwell on is the fact that a safe solution was ultimately found — one that let protesters stay in a smaller, noncommercial section of the street for a couple of more days with safer traffic barricades provided by the city that didn’t allow drivers to enter.
The solution — arrived at with those protesters “who were willing to have conversations … they were both listening to me and I was listening to them” — avoided the need for a continued police presence at the largely peaceful site, which Brixius said would only have exacerbated the situation.
“When we were present, we became the focus of people’s attention, and I did not want to be the focus,” he said.
Defund the police?
While Brixius thinks “a lot has been laid at the feet of police officers that’s maybe not the best fit” — for example, being called to situations where a social worker might be a better responder or to certain traffic situations where a civilian responder might be appropriate — he sees the typical calls for defunding and dismantling as having a “dangerous” side, particularly when it comes to what he calls “vulnerable populations.”
Economically disadvantaged people are among those hardest hit by crime, he noted, and hence most in need of police protection. He worries that certain measures under discussion nationally could leave this population even more vulnerable, but he reiterates that he’s eager to have the conversation about how to narrow the police profile without compromising public safety.
“I think there is some merit in examining what we want police officers to do,” he said.
But while he’s on board with those discussions, he’s also an advocate of thorough deliberation. As he said in the context of internal reforms, “If you’re going to do anything, you want to try and do it really well; so you want to take smaller pieces at a time.”
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo
On July 3, a day after two of his officers had been shot, Kansas City, Mo., Police Chief Richard Smith expressed frustration with the recent backlash against police.
“These men and women come out here every day to protect and help people in this city,” he said. “I think for a while here there was a negative portrayal of that, and it was a voice and maybe a message that was not honest, in my opinion.”
While Smith has taken heat for the conduct of some of his officers at recent protests, his sentiment about the portrayal of police is one that Brixius relates to.
“I would agree with that. The vast, vast majority of our police officers are great people. They’re involved in their community. They’re trying to do things right. They’re trying to do their job right and take care of their families,” Brixius, the father of two, said.
It’s a “trying time” for officers, he said, as they “are being grouped into one big category” and their “families are very concerned with their loved ones going to work, with what’s happening in the world right now.”
“I think just looking at people as individuals would be a really positive thing,” he said.
When asked about his experience as a person of color on a mostly white police force — in recent years about 5% of the department’s 150-some officers have been Black — he acknowledged that he has a unique perspective, but quickly added, “That’s probably true for anyone; we each have our own unique experiences.”
“I’m certainly proud of who I am, both as a person of color and a police officer; neither define me, though,” he said. “It’s my choices that define me.”
Update on police chief search
Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens told the Journal-World that he intends to delay recruitment for a new police chief until the community has an opportunity to thoroughly discuss policing and criminal justice.
“Important conversations are happening nationally and are soon to happen here,” he said.
Owens said the city would seek proposals from national experts to assist in a review of the Lawrence Police Department and connected agencies. After that evaluation, including discussing “options for the future of policing and alternative service delivery models,” a recruitment process for the chief is expected to begin.
That process will have a strong community-based component and will include generating “a profile for the next chief,” he said.
“In the meantime, I have great confidence in Interim Chief (Anthony) Brixius and the command staff,” Owens said in an email.