Editorial: Clear the air on the city’s police chief mess

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

The Lawrence police union’s vote of no confidence in the city’s police chief has been described by both the union and city management as uncharted territory. Perhaps that is so, but the public ought to lend both sides a well-tested map.

All roads on that map lead to openness and transparency. So far, there has been too little of both in this police chief incident.

Yes, the Lawrence Police Officers Association’s overwhelming vote of no confidence in chief Gregory Burns Jr. is unusual. Figuring out how to respond to unusual circumstances can be difficult, and thus some understanding in how this matter has been handled thus far is justifiable.

But now that the community has learned of the vote, it is clear that the public deserves better than what it is getting. Here are three changes that should happen immediately to get us out of uncharted territory and back into the land of good government.

• The public needs to be told of the concerns that led to the vote of no confidence. To keep the concerns a secret from the public shows a lack of respect for the position of chief of police. It already is a difficult job, but this incident is on track to make it even more so. The secret concerns hang like a cloud of mistrust over the chief of police. It is unfair to the residents of Lawrence to create such a toxic environment around such an important position. The public deserves to be able to trust its police chief. Restoring that trust outweighs any privacy concerns Burns may have. He’s been appointed to one of the most important public positions in the community. There should be little expectation of privacy when it comes to his performance on the job. Air the concerns so that the public can decide whether to place its trust in the chief.

• City Manager Craig Owens — Burns’ boss — needs to either state he has confidence in the chief or else he needs to suspend him until he completes a review of these matters. Given the vote, it was a fair question when the Journal-World asked Owens whether he had confidence in the chief. The default answer to that question should be: “Yes, that is why he is still serving in the position.” There should not be a day that the city manager doesn’t have confidence in the city’s chief law enforcement officer. It is that important of a position. Owens’ answer left it unclear whether he does have confidence in the chief. Owens said: “In general, I won’t comment on personnel matters or specific performance of people on our team. I am confident in the service level we are providing to the community and expect that we will be continuously getting better as we move forward.” The public deserves greater assurances.

• The police union should vow to handle future situations with more transparency. The union’s leadership has damaged the police department’s image with how it has handled this situation. There should be no qualms with the union taking a vote of no confidence against the chief. A fundamental role of unions is to hold management accountable. The error came in the union’s decision to not only keep the vote a secret, but also to use the threat of making it public as leverage to get what the union wants: leadership change. An email obtained by the Journal-World written by the union’s leader to Owens stated: “. . . membership directed the (executive) board to only share the results of the vote with the city’s executive team unless there is not appropriate leadership in place by May 14, 2020, at which time the results of the vote will be shared publicly with the City Commission.”

The union erred in that decision. It makes it look as if police officers are willing to engage in a backroom deal to get what they want. Parts of society are forming increasingly negative opinions of law enforcement. In many cases, those opinions are misguided. But this type of tactic does nothing to diminish those perceptions. Perhaps this was done with no ill intent, but the union needs to be more mindful of the message it sends to a skeptical public.

This entire incident is unfortunate. Key facts are lacking for the public to render an informed opinion of Burns’ competence. This, however, is certain: It will be a shame if this incident is handled in a way that leaves clouds of mistrust hanging over the community.

Clear the air now with transparency and openness.


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