Editorial: Keep pushing for more information about the Lawrence Police Department
photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration
We are fortunate to have the Lawrence Police Community Review Board. The Lawrence community needs more information about the Lawrence Police Department, and this city-appointed board seems to be one of the few governmental entities working to provide that information to the public.
The board last week took a first step in strengthening review powers regarding complaints against the police force. One version of the plan would allow the review board to review all complaints filed by community members regarding the police department.
It is too early to say whether a plan that broad is the right plan. But it might be. The topic is an important one and deserves a full debate. We are not yet at that stage in the process, as the proposed changes are still under review, and the board must vote one more time before the proposals become the group’s formal recommendations. After that, the changes will go to the public for comment and ultimately to city commissioners.
We should all look forward to seeing those final recommendations, but, in the meantime, encourage the board to keep pressing ahead.
Support of the board, however, should not be equated with opposition of the police department and the officers who serve the community. The organization is full of good people who have a real devotion to serving the public good.
Good people, though, are not the only ingredient in the recipe for success. For example, good structures need to be in place, as well. The department may be full of good people, but if it has a lousy process for handling and considering complaints from the public, problems can still ensue regardless of how many good people are in place.
Reviewing the structures, organization and philosophies of the police department are critical tasks at this moment. Why? Perhaps you have forgotten, but the department is operating with an interim police chief. The city was wise to delay the hiring of a police chief until it had time to further assess the department, especially given the unseemly departure of its last chief.
However, thus far, the public has learned little from this period of review. Granted, the pandemic struck, and resources understandably had to be shifted to deal with urgent and unexpected matters. The fact the review has not been completed is not particularly troublesome. However, if the review is cut short in any way that would be troubling. This interim period may need to last longer than originally envisioned. So be it. The public deserves a more complete picture of its police force than it currently has.
If you recall, the city and its last police chief — the first black police chief in the city’s history — parted ways in a very unusual fashion. The police union took a vote of no confidence in the chief and kept that vote out of the public’s eye. The results were delivered to city management, with information that results would be made public if the city didn’t remove the chief by a certain time. The Journal-World discovered the vote anyway and made it public. However, neither the union nor the city would ever say what the reasons were for the vote of no confidence. The police chief also did not address it, but rather was given a six-figure payment by the city to not discuss the matter nor ever disparage the city publicly.
As we noted at the time, that process was a disgrace to good government. That is still the case. Looking forward, though, the question becomes whether the city will also make a disgrace of good hiring practices. When the city gets ready to hire a new police chief, it almost certainly will seek input from “community stakeholders.”
But here’s a question: How is the public supposed to provide informed feedback about the next police chief when we have no clue about why the last police chief is no longer here?
If the city moves forward with that question unanswered, the public will have every right to be disappointed.