Residents concerned LPD has ‘hands-off’ policy with homeless; police chief says that’s not policy but he’s concerned about rising tensions, talk of firearms

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

A collection of tents is pictured on Oct. 29, 2022, just west of the city-run campsite for people experiencing homelessness, which is north of the Kansas River near downtown Lawrence.

First, it was a man shouting a whole lot of expletives running from his vehicle parked near the Kansas River in downtown Lawrence.

Next, it was the man sticking his head through the rolled-down car window of a woman who had stopped to have a conversation with another woman in the area.

And finally, it was the spittle. Spittle spewed by one angry man.

That was Sarah Hill-Nelson’s workday commute about three weeks ago. Hill-Nelson, a co-owner of The Bowersock Mills & Power Company, was near her company’s historic hydroelectric power plant on the south side of the Kansas River, just behind Lawrence City Hall.

“I was just trying to be nice,” Hill-Nelson said of her decision to stop, roll down her window and talk with a woman camping very near the power plant in a spot not designated for camping. “She was in disarray, a complete mess.”

Hill-Nelson told the woman that the city had set up a camp near Johnny’s Tavern on the other side of the river that might be a better place to camp. The woman said she couldn’t because she had been kicked out of that camp after she stripped down naked and ran around the camp while intoxicated.

Hill-Nelson said it was early enough in the day that maybe a bed was open at the Lawrence Community Shelter. But the woman said that wouldn’t work because she had a cat. Hill-Nelson was thinking about who she knew that could take care of a cat for a few days, when a man sitting in a car nearby jumped out and started yelling that she couldn’t tell people where to camp, and eventually stuck his head in her car, spittle and all.

“He is screaming at me and out of his head, and that is when I said ‘I’m out of here,'” Hill-Nelson said.

A jarring day at work, but Hill-Nelson has had those before. Last spring, a different woman physically chased Hill-Nelson when she called 911 to report a large fire the woman had set under the Kansas River bridge. A couple of members of a nearby construction crew intervened, which sent the woman up to the Riverfront parking garage near City Hall. There, the woman stripped naked and led police on a foot chase, Hill-Nelson said.

So, surprises are not uncommon along the Kansas River, but Hill-Nelson had one more coming.

As she was leaving the scene, two members of the Lawrence Police Department were in a patrol car parked along Sixth Street. She told the officers about the scene. They asked if she was physically assaulted. She said she was not.

“They were like ‘Do you want to press charges for him yelling at you?” Hill-Nelson recalled. “We’ve kind of been directed not to mess with these people. We have been directed not to mess with these people.”

Hill-Nelson then took a different tack and asked a question. She asked what she needed to do to keep herself safe coming and going from her business. The officers asked if she really wanted to know. She did.

“They were like ‘You need to carry a gun,’ Hill-Nelson recalled.

That was a jolt she wasn’t expecting when she came to work.

“Flat out, if I want to keep myself safe going to and from work with people I’m dealing with in the river corridor in Lawrence, Kansas, I’m to carry a gun,” she said.

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

The city-run campsite for people experiencing homelessness is pictured on Oct. 29, 2022. The temporary campsite is just north of the Kansas River near downtown Lawrence.


Lawrence Police Chief Rich Lockhart has been hearing concerns from members of the public about how his officers interact with the homeless and a supposed “hands-off” policy in dealing with infractions committed by the homeless.

But he hadn’t heard Hill-Nelson’s account until the Journal-World relayed it to him this week. When it came to the part where Hill-Nelson said officers advised that she arm herself, Lockhart said: “Oh my.”

If people feel they need to arm themselves in the city to feel safe, that is a concern, he said.

“It bothers me when I hear that people are arming themselves because they feel scared,” Lockhart said. “For me, we have to do a better job of making our folks feel safe in their community so they don’t feel like they have to do that.”

Hill-Nelson’s story isn’t the only one. Ted Boyle, longtime president of the North Lawrence Improvement Association, tells of an incident one of his family members had recently. Boyle’s kin was in bed watching T.V. when he noticed two men from a nearby homeless camp peering through the window.

When the family member was telling Boyle the story, Boyle inquired about where his kin’s pistol was at the time. He said it was in the gun safe. Boyle asked him where it is now.

“In my pocket,” was the response.

That is just one of several signs that tensions are rising in the neighborhood, Boyle said. They have been for a while. Boyle said several members of the Lawrence Police Department and the Lawrence city manager’s office met in his kitchen about a year and a half ago, which was before Lockhart was hired as police chief. City officials had heard reports of North Lawrence residents arming themselves as a result of feeling unsafe as the homeless population increased in the neighborhood.

“I told them that particularly in North Lawrence, people protect their property and their families,” Boyle said.

Especially, if they feel law enforcement isn’t. The Journal-World has heard from numerous residents who have heard that there is a “hands-off” policy regarding how LPD officers are supposed to handle many incidents involving the homeless.

Hill-Nelson got that impression in her latest interaction with police involving the woman and the angry man. Hill-Nelson hasn’t named the officers in that interaction and said she doesn’t intend to. She doesn’t believe they did anything wrong in dealing with her, but rather were doing what they’ve been instructed.

“I have 100 percent empathy with the patrol officers,” she said. “I’m grateful for them every single day. I’m concerned they have not been granted the wherewithal to deal with the situation.”

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

The city-run campsite for people experiencing homelessness is pictured on Oct. 29, 2022. The temporary campsite is just north of the Kansas River near downtown Lawrence.


Lockhart said the LPD does not have a formal “hands-off” policy in dealing with certain situations involving the homeless. But he has heard that concern mentioned many times, and he does want to determine whether there are officers on the force who are under that impression.

“I’ve been looking and asking around here if somebody has given them an order to go hands-off on the houseless population,” Lockhart said. “I haven’t found anybody who can point to that say ‘yes, I heard it from this person.'”

Lockhart said he is in the process of crafting a memo to the department that will give instructions on how to deal with many situations related to the homeless.

“I have heard the same things you are hearing,” Lockhart said in an interview with the Journal-World this week. “One of the things I’m doing right now is working on a memo to send my officers, saying here are your orders on how to handle these situations.”

Lockhart said he plans to make the memo public.

Its directives likely won’t please everyone. He said enforcement actions are “always going to be a last resort” for the department, and he said “I can’t arrest my way out of this problem.” Certainly, in instances of violence and other similar matters, arrests can be made. But many of the situations causing concern — ranging from public defecation to camping in unauthorized locations — aren’t designed to lead to an arrest, but rather a ticket.

“They’re not going to criminalize poverty,” Lockhart said. “They are not going to put people in jail for sleeping on a sidewalk. Then, you write them a ticket, and now it just costs them money they don’t have, and they are just right back out there.

“We have to look at some nontraditional ways to solve the problem.”

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

A fire pit with a mound of burning clothes is pictured at the city-run campsite for people experiencing homelessness, on Oct. 29, 2022. The temporary campsite is just north of the Kansas River near downtown Lawrence.


Lockhart is concerned with any talk of people arming themselves. He said that is a solution that can turn bad very quickly.

“Once you bring a firearm in, you are talking about a permanent consequence for everyone,” Lockhart said. “If you kill someone, they are gone. If you do it and it is not an appropriate use of force, you could go to jail.”

Lockhart called the homeless situation in Lawrence and elsewhere a “very complex social problem.”

It is an evolving one as well. When the city opened its own camp for the homeless near the Kansas River levee behind Johnny’s Tavern in late September, it created new issues to resolve.

“We are working through some issues there,” he said. “We are trying to get on the same page about how we handle misconduct in the camp.”

The law also evolves. The city currently is choosing to follow an opinion from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — headquartered in San Francisco — even though that circuit does not produce binding legal decisions for Kansas. That opinion essentially states that a city can’t remove a person from sleeping on public property unless there is an adequate alternative.

Lockhart said Lawrence officials thus far have not determined that the new homeless camp in North Lawrence is an adequate alternative under the definition of the law. The 125-bed Lawrence Community Shelter also hasn’t been deemed an adequate alternative because leaders there say they can’t house more than 50 people currently due to staffing difficulties and other issues.

But Lockhart said his department is working to engage leadership of the Lawrence Community Shelter as an active partner, and he said the department also is working with the homeless outreach teams run by Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and the newest one created by the city of Lawrence. He’s also studying systems in communities that have had large houseless populations, specifically mentioning Sarasota, Florida as an example of a potential model community.

“I think there are some good things coming on the horizon,” Lockhart said.

That would be welcome on the north side of the Kansas River. Justin Shiney, a business owner and resident of North Lawrence, said it has been a difficult time period to live and work in the neighborhood.

About a month ago, his block that abuts the Kansas River levee was abuzz with a police operation that involved the use of an infrared-seeking drone that was used to find an armed transient person hiding in the woods who allegedly had been threatening people. Some members of the neighborhood watched while the man was arrested in the middle of the street.

“I don’t know,” Shiney said of the future. “It doesn’t look good over here for us, especially considering three years ago it was peaceful and calm. It is 180 degrees, and it has been a tough transition.”

It has come with lots of everyday changes, including that he no longer lets his middle-school daughter walk to school.

Hill-Nelson also has seen those real-life changes. She asked police officers whether she should be letting her daughter run on the Kansas River levee trail — one of the most popular in the city — during the daytime.

“They said, ‘hell no. Are you kidding?'” Hill-Nelson recalled.


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