‘A lot of passing the buck:’ Lawrence police chief tells of area law enforcement agencies transporting homeless people to Lawrence

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Lawrence Police Chief Rich Lockhart talks with a merchant at a Downtown Lawrence Inc. meeting on Aug. 25, 2023.

A woman is strolling along a highway just outside of Garnett naked.

Indeed, that is a disruption in the Anderson County community of about 3,200 people approximately an hour south of Lawrence. But it’s also something else: The beginning of a journey to Lawrence.

Days later, the woman had arrived at the Lawrence Public Library.

Then, about 30 minutes after arrival, the local 911 call comes in.

“There is a naked lady on Vermont Street,” was the gist of the call, Lawrence Police Chief Rich Lockhart told a crowd of downtown business owners and executives at Friday’s quarterly meeting of Downtown Lawrence Inc.

Even by downtown Lawrence standards, a naked lady on Vermont Street qualifies as an interesting day. But there’s an even more interesting detail to the incident: How the woman got to Lawrence.

The Anderson County Sheriff’s Department brought her here.

Lockhart said law enforcement agencies in nearby Jefferson and Shawnee counties also are bringing people — often homeless, mentally ill or both — to Lawrence, although those counties most often drop people off at the North Lawrence convenience store closest to the turnpike.

Lockhart didn’t provide an estimate of how many times per month such activity is happening, but rather said “it’s happening pretty frequently.”

“I think there is a lot of passing the buck, and it is not fair to the person,” Lockhart said.

The woman ended up getting arrested and taken to jail, Lockhart said. As police interviewed the woman — whose address was in St. Joseph, Mo. — they learned about how she got to Lawrence via the Anderson County Sheriff’s Department.

Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister was notified of the situation, and reached out to the Anderson County sheriff to express concern. Lockhart said he saw the email that was sent, and described it as “colorful language” that basically said “I want you to knock this off.”

But Anderson County Sheriff Vernon Valentine in an interview with the Journal-World on Friday afternoon said his department did nothing wrong. The department did transport the woman to the Lawrence Public Library. But he said she ended up there on the recommendation of an individual at the Lawrence Community Shelter, who would not take the woman until the facility opened at 7 p.m. that day. Lockhart said he hasn’t been able to confirm that anyone at the shelter told deputies to take the woman to the library.

As for why the woman was being brought to Lawrence at all, Valentine said that wasn’t the sheriff’s department’s doing but rather was the result of a negotiated deal between the county prosecutor, the district court and the woman, who had been arrested twice for wandering naked in the county. The parties agreed she had to go to Lawrence to enter a treatment program in order to be released from custody in the Anderson County Jail.

“As far as I know, that is the closest homeless shelter to here,” Valentine said of the Lawrence Community Shelter.

For his part, Valentine said the recent incident involving the woman was the first time to his knowledge — dating back to 1998 — that the department had relocated someone to Lawrence, and it only did so because of the court action.

Lockhart said Lawrence officials also have reached out to officials in Shawnee and Jefferson counties to have some “chief to chief” communications about the issue and the burden it places on the Lawrence community.

Lockhart said he has a good sense of why some law enforcement agencies are bringing those people to Lawrence.

“I think there is this perception that we have this wide array of services,” Lockhart said. “I get it … you don’t have the services we have here. But you are taking someone out of their familiar territory and putting them somewhere that they are unfamiliar.”

Getting area law enforcement agencies to stop bringing individuals to Lawrence, though, will address only part of the issue, Lockhart said. The chief said that his department has confirmed that a significant number of people from outside the area, or even from outside the state, are coming to Lawrence because they’ve heard the community has excellent services for the homeless.

“And they are a different breed of person,” Lockhart told the crowd.

He noted that several have been arrested in connection with high-profile crimes, including a murder near the Kansas River bridge in downtown, some stabbings in downtown, and an assault on Massachusetts Street near Memorial Day.

“If you are seeing some unfamiliar people, be a little cautious,” Lockhart told the Friday morning crowd made up mostly of shop owners and employees.

Lockhart said his department has been interviewing the people it arrests or otherwise interacts with about how they came to be in Lawrence. He said there is a common thread.

“What they are telling us is there is some kind of network, a message out there — and I don’t know if it is a website or what because we haven’t nailed that down completely — but there is a network that says there is a lot of services in Lawrence,” Lockhart said. “It (Lawrence) is a good place to go, and they treat their houseless people very well. And that is what is drawing people from out of state.”

Lockhart said there is not a current strategy for how to counter that message that is taking hold across the country.

“I don’t know the answer to that one,” he said.

Lockhart said the problem isn’t the services because those are needed for local residents who have become homeless.

“I think we need to take care of our people who are unsheltered and need to provide service, but the downside to that is you will have this happening,” Lockhart said of the services attracting people from far and wide.

The chief, though, said it is clear some of the people who are being attracted to the city are dangerous.

“If someone wants treatment, there are resources here, but some of the folks that are being drawn in are predators,” Lockhart said. “They don’t want a resource. They are victimizing our unsheltered people, who are vulnerable as well.”

Other items that Lockhart discussed during the meeting on Friday morning included:

• The police department is providing foot patrols in the downtown district, but the days in which they occur are sporadic. Lockhart said that is because the department is relying on officers volunteering to take overtime shifts to staff the two-person patrols. Lockhart said his goal is to have four full-time officers and a sergeant who are permanently assigned to downtown.

Lockhart, though, said he can’t commit those resources to the downtown patrols until the department reaches its full staffing level of 152 officers. The department currently has about 140, although the functional level due to family leave situations is closer to 120 currently.

• Lockhart said recruiting new police officers has been challenging in Lawrence. He said he has personally felt very welcomed and appreciated by Lawrence residents, but he said that’s not the general view that recruits have about potentially serving in Lawrence.

“Community support in Lawrence as a whole really is not what it needs to be,” Lockhart said. “We hear that from people who are applying. There is sort of this idea that people in Lawrence don’t like the police.”

• Lockhart said the current police force is very young by historic standards. He estimated that most officers doing routine street patrols have about five years of police service.

• Lockhart shared multiple tips with shop owners at the meeting about how to deal with customers — or shoplifters — who may be giving their businesses troubles. He urged business owners with concerns to call the police department for an individual, free security review of their businesses. The department also will provide free training on issues such as how to de-escalate conflicts or self-defense.

Some of the tips were very specific. Lockhart told businesses that they may want to install blue lighting in places like elevators and restrooms where they don’t want loitering to occur. He said studies have shown that people don’t enjoy being in blue light, plus he said the blue light makes it difficult for drug users to find a vein to inject themselves. He also suggested that locations that are experiencing loitering in outside areas could consider placing large planters full of cacti in the areas. He said that was one of his recommendations for an area near the front entrance of the public library, which he recently provided with a security review.

(Editor’s Note: When Chief Rich Lockhart relayed the incident involving the woman to a crowd of about 30 downtown stakeholders Friday morning, he repeatedly said the incident involved the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department and the community of Ottawa. In the course of its reporting, the Journal-World received information that the incident actually involved the Anderson County Sheriff’s Department and Garnett. When reached by the Journal-World, Lockhart checked his documentation and said he had indeed misspoken to the group regarding the county and community involved.)


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