Editorial: This house party was no fun, but it can help us improve

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

It was a messy week in Lawrence. Follow this debris trail to assess the evidence for yourself.

Images of raging house parties on the edge of the University of Kansas campus — full of unmasked young adults crammed together in violation of public health orders on large gatherings and social distancing — end up on national television.

The scenes themselves weren’t the only detail sparking outrage. A Lawrence police officer responded to the scene, but did nothing to break it up or issue any citations.

Think about this: For literally generations, Lawrence law enforcement has been breaking up college house parties. But during the middle of a pandemic — when these house parties are creating legitimate health risks, rather than just noise and aesthetic problems — we suddenly forget how to break one up.

But the trail does not end there. When the Journal-World asked why law enforcement didn’t take action at that Saturday night party, a police department spokesman gave a vague answer about the department being “limited by law” in its ability to enforce public health orders. He pointed to the district attorney’s office as a better place to take complaints. The DA’s office pointed back to local enforcement.

Meanwhile, the public just wants to know whether it is supposed to take any of this seriously anymore. If members of the public see a house party clearly violating public health orders, what are they supposed to do break up the potential super-spreader event? After not receiving an answer to that question on its first day of coverage, the Journal-World undertakes a second day of coverage. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office responds that people should call Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health if they suspect a health order is being violated. So, when people see an irresponsible Saturday night party, they should call the health department that is only open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday? What?

By Thursday, the Lawrence City Commission had gotten involved. At a special meeting, it approved a new ordinance that makes it clear the Lawrence Police Department can enforce public health orders. That was welcome action. Commissioners Stuart Boley, Lisa Larsen and Courtney Shipley were steadfast in making that happen. Thank you.

It would be tempting to say “all’s well that ends well.” After all, this page has urged grace and compassion for those making tough decisions related to this pandemic. That is still true, but grace does not come with a moratorium on improvement. This past week shows the community can improve in at least two areas:

• Planning. City and county leaders clearly were counting on voluntary compliance from university students. It is fine to have that as a nice hope, but it has been clear for awhile now that such an expectation is unrealistic. We have students here from all over. Many of them come from counties where the belief is that the only self-respecting people who wear masks are bank robbers. These house parties shouldn’t have caught us by surprise.

• Accountability. The public deserves a clear explanation on why the Lawrence Police Department thought it was “limited by law” in its ability to enforce public health orders. Presumably, the sheriff’s office believed the same. It seems that belief was misguided. The ordinance the City Commission passed already was on the state law books. The local ordinance may relieve the police department of some paperwork, but local law enforcement’s hands were never tied in this matter. The law allowed them to do more. But even more concerning is that when the Journal-World asked LPD, point-blank, what it meant by being “limited by law” in its ability to enforce health orders, the department refused to provide any details. Who thinks that is acceptable in this environment of mistrust of law enforcement? LPD, under former city manager Tom Markus, made some improvements in accountability. This was a step backward. The community can’t afford more of them. A police department that doesn’t embrace transparency will result in unrest in Lawrence.

So, yes, it was a messy week in Lawrence. But local government isn’t the only one that has had one of those during the pandemic. Businesses have, schools have, individuals have, and unfortunately such weeks probably aren’t done.

But this bad week doesn’t have to be a defining week. We have good government in Lawrence and Douglas County, and there are good people in it. Take heart in that because good people willing to do tough things will defeat this pandemic.

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