Where are the reports? Lawrence police, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office explain the absence of documents about their performance
Agencies say many missing reports are coming soon
photo by: Journal-World File Photos
As the amount of public money pumped into the community’s two largest law enforcement agencies grows, the amount of readily available information about their performance has greatly shrunk, a review by the Journal-World has found.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office — which is on the verge of getting millions of dollars a year in new operating funds, if county commissioners follow through on a roughly $30 million expansion of the Douglas County Jail — hasn’t produced an annual report since 2016. The annual reports are designed to provide the public and county commissioners with the clearest look at data and trends impacting the department and the jail it oversees.
The Lawrence Police Department — which soon will start receiving the benefit of a new, nearly $20 million headquarters building that’s currently under construction — hasn’t published a report on when and where its officers use force, such as Tasers and batons, since 2017. In addition, its report detailing when officers are the subject of complaints no longer provides any general details about the nature of the complaints. Complaints’ resolutions are also murkier, as the latest reports sometimes simply say a complaint was “closed by exception,” meaning that the matter was closed at the direction of the police chief.
The Journal-World inquired this week about various reports: some missing, and some simply not as informative as they have been in the past. According to spokespeople for the two agencies, the missing or greatly altered reports are largely based on three changes: in leadership, in personnel and in software.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office’s website hosts annual reports for 2011 through 2016. They’re about 40 pages long, on average, and packed full of data on the Douglas County Jail’s population, demographics, programs, staffing, training and more. But the documents stopped coming out after the 2016 report.
Jenn Hethcoat, public information officer for the sheriff’s office, said Friday that the 2017 and 2018 reports are nearing completion; the 2019 report is further out.
“Information sharing is important to us and we are glad that our community shares that value,” Hethcoat said via email. “The position created to analyze and report data was transferred to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council before data compilation was completed and we have not turned these projects around as quickly as we would like to.”
She said the information that is normally available in the reports is always available to interested citizens who request it. However, when a member of the public could actually expect to get the requested information is unclear.
“(T)he amount of time it takes to produce the information requested will vary and depends on what data has already been compiled and pulled from our system,” she said.
Finding up-to-date annual reports for the Lawrence Police Department can be even tougher.
The Lawrence Police Department’s annual reports through 2013 can be found online with a little digging. Their content varies a bit more from year to year but features statistics on offenses and interactions, highlights of the year, officers’ achievements and awards, retirements and other department news. After searching an internet archive, the Journal-World was able to locate a 2014 annual report, but none more recent.
Patrick Compton, a spokesman for the department, said 2015 and 2016 reports were completed. He explained that the department used to have its own website, and it’s now part of the city’s website. He said he’s not sure if they dropped off in the shifting and reorganization, but they’re not up right now “just due to poor upkeep on our part.”
“We’re going to start maintaining that a little better,” he said.
The department did not complete a 2017 report. Compton said the position responsible for the reports, the chief’s executive assistant, saw a lot of turnover; the report was started and stopped multiple times, but eventually other tasks took priority. He said there is a 2018 report that also needs to be posted to the website, and 2019’s is still being compiled but has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Use of force, officer complaints
LPD’s Office of Professional Accountability handles personnel investigations, based on complaints from members of the public or from internal complainants. Looking at the publicly available 2015 and 2019 reports side by side shows a stark contrast in the amount of information provided.
Compton explained Friday that each year, two reports are created. One is relatively detailed in its information, including names of involved personnel and disciplinary action taken. Once the police chief approves that report, is it shared only with the Lawrence city manager.
“The city manager, in that respect, provides that set of eyes and accountability from outside the organization,” Compton said.
The second report is published for public consumption with the goal of providing transparency, accountability and integrity, Compton said. The reports are not mandated by any overseeing entity and the department is not required to publish them, but LPD sees their value, Compton said.
However, those reports have become significantly less detailed in recent years.
The OPA’s investigations summary from 2015 includes background information about the report itself and a breakdown of how each of 15 complaints were resolved — whether they were sustained, unfounded, dismissed and so on.
The descriptions are not particularly detailed, but they provide at least a broad sense of what is alleged to have occurred. For instance, an internal complainant reported that “an employee used excessive force to arrest a citizen” or that “an employee was possibly engaged in unprofessional conduct and violated the law while off duty.” Also, for example, a citizen reported “an employee racially profiled them during a traffic stop” or “an employee contacted the citizen without an official need.”
The two most recent reports are much more vague. The reports provide no general description of the alleged offense, but rather simply state that an employee or officer was reported to have “violated department policy.” None of the 16 complaints in 2018 or the nine in 2019 contain any more specific information.
Asked whether the reports live up to the standard of transparency LPD wants to set, Compton said that “the overall information that’s in the report lives up to the transparency that we want to get out there.”
“We’d like to put out everything, but obviously there are things that constrain us from doing that,” he said. “And again, the rights of individuals play into that; state law plays into that.”
Compton said he was not aware of any changes to state law in recent years that would require the department to cut back on the amount of information in the public reports.
However, the department has had a change in police chiefs since 2015. Lawrence Police Chief Gregory Burns Jr. began in his role on Oct. 2, 2017, following the retirement of Chief Tarik Khatib.
“Everything that’s in these reports has been signed off as releasable by the chief of police,” Compton said.
The 2018 report also contains a new disposition for complaints: “cleared by exception.” Compton said that refers to a complaint that was closed at the direction of the chief of police.
A “cleared by exception” disposition combines three more specific outcomes that the previous years’ reports explicitly stated: The complaint was closed either because the complainant withdrew the complaint altogether, the complainant failed to cooperate with the investigation or the officer separated from employment before the investigation was complete, Compton explained.
“This is a new addition to the department policy as of 2018 and that new addition to the policy was put in at the direction of the chief of police in 2018,” he said.
Burns was not available to speak with the Journal-World Friday, Compton said; however, the responses Compton shared with the newspaper were communicated to Burns, who said he would not have anything to add, Compton said.
photo by: Mackenzie Clark/Journal-World Graphic
LPD’s website also includes use of force reports for 2015 and 2017. The reports provide narratives of incidents in which people were “actively resisting arrest and/or presented an assaultive behavior” against an officer, another person or themselves, according to the 2017 report. Each incident is reported to a Use of Force Committee to determine whether the officers had violated department policy or laws.
The department has stopped issuing separate reports on the use of Tasers. Instead, incidents in which Tasers are deployed are now included in the overall use of force reports.
The location of the 2016 report was unclear Saturday. Compton said Friday that the 2018 use of force report is complete — it just hasn’t been published online. The 2019 report is close to ready to publish, Compton said.
Reporting to the FBI
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website hosts statistics on criminal offenses from city and county law enforcement agencies across the country. However, Lawrence and Douglas County have been missing from any reports after 2013.
To simplify a complicated explanation from Compton and Hethcoat, that is largely due to a software switch in 2014 that has made the agencies unable to produce the data in the format needed for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to transmit the data to the FBI. Both agencies use software called Spillman, and it does not “talk to” the KBI’s software very well, Compton said.
This lack of data means that Lawrence and Douglas County won’t show up on aggregated lists of the safest or most dangerous cities in Kansas, for instance, but it doesn’t have any negative repercussions for the departments otherwise. Hethcoat said the sheriff’s office fulfills its obligations by reporting its data to the KBI.
Compton said the community’s perspective is important, though.
“That’s why we’re actively trying to work to fix this,” he said.
The Journal-World will follow up on the agencies’ reports as they’re published in the near future.
Contact Mackenzie Clark
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