Editorial: The City of Lawrence can take steps right now to ease racial tensions

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

As everything from protests to riots coursed through the nation’s streets, U.S. mayors have uttered words that should be remembered.

“We are asking for peace, not patience,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said, paraphrasing a similar call from her colleague in St. Paul, Minn.

Certainly it is fine to condemn the looting and violence, but patience is too much to ask. The nation may well be in the equivalent of cardiac arrest currently, but remember it was brought on by high blood pressure — hypertension — that has been pressing at our heart for more than four centuries.

Waiting for it to pass, of course, is not how you treat it. Perseverance is often a better prescription than patience for many diseases.

City of Lawrence leaders should ponder whether they are asking our city’s minority community for patience. Just as importantly, they should consider whether that is just.

Lawrence, thus far, has gotten a tremendous bargain. Thousands of people converged on downtown Sunday evening for a protest against police brutality. The event was largely peaceful. All the major players in the event, including the police, should be congratulated. The greatest credit, though, goes to the protesters. They were here to build rather than destroy. The best protesters try to build a better tomorrow by heightening awareness today. The Lawrence event on Sunday was a credit to those efforts.

Their efforts should produce something in return, and the City of Lawrence can easily provide it. An issue has emerged in recent days after some reporting by the Journal-World. The Lawrence Police Department annually prepares public reports detailing the formal complaints that have been lodged against officers and other departmental employees. However, the complaints in recent years have become far less detailed. In the past, readers could get at a general sense of whether the complaint involved allegations of racism, excessive violence, abuse of power or other issues. Now, the report simply states a violation of departmental policy has been alleged.

It is a change that has been noticed by some of the Sunday protesters, with one telling a Journal-World reporter “that’s the opposite of transparency.”

It absolutely is.

The Journal-World followed up with city commissioners after reporting that the public was now getting less information about police-related complaints. Commissioners expressed some concern but not many concrete actions. An example: Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei said he hoped the interim police chief, or the next police chief, would revisit the change in reports.

“I would certainly hope they would look at that and make a determination,” Finkeldei said, “but certainly the previous ones provided the better information, and certainly more valuable information to the public.”

There are worse things to say, but certainly better actions to take. City commissioners could take meaningful and symbolic action by directing the police department to provide more information about formal complaints. Commissioners could do it the next time they meet. There is nothing complicated about this. Who believes that today’s world calls for less information about police actions?

City commissioners could then move on to larger actions. Commissioner Lisa Larsen already has floated the idea of a big-picture review of the police department. Her instincts are correct. Do not delay in starting that project. Form a selection committee for a consultant, and ensure the minority community has strong representation on it.

Compared with some others, Lawrence’s police department is in fine health. But it still may not pass a physical with flying colors. The department has had a transparency problem, and city leaders have added to it recently.

City commissioners, with next to no discussion, agreed to pay the outgoing police chief more than $100,000 to no longer work for the city. It is one thing if city commissioners don’t want to get into the details of why an employee didn’t work out. It is another if they want to give that employee six figures of public money in the middle of a financial crisis with no meaningful explanation.

That is a bridge too far, and it paints a terrible picture. It looks like the city is firing its first black police chief and giving him money to keep his mouth and his lawyer’s briefcase shut.

That’s the sort of thing that will cause blood pressures to rightly rise. City commissioners have the community’s prescription pad. They should remember the time to fight a heart attack is long before you start clutching your chest.

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