The Lawrence City Commission at its meeting Tuesday approved the creation of a new community police review board that will help the city handle complaints against the police department.
The new board will replace the Citizens Advisory Board for Fair and Impartial Policing and will have some additional responsibilities and oversight regarding complaints of police misconduct and bias.
The board will also be able to accept public comment, although the local police union, the Lawrence Police Officers’ Association, opposed that provision.
LPOA chair Drew Fennelly told the commission the union was concerned that allowing general public comment could lead to residents making public complaints against individual officers even though such complaints should be kept confidential.
“There is no opportunity for that bell to be un-rung once it happens,” Fennelly said. “Once an officer’s name is used during general public comment, that information is out there, and the safeguards in place to protect the officer’s privacy have already failed. I think there’s significant avenues outside of general public comment that allow people to address those concerns with the board.”
The new board will accept complaints from the public regarding police misconduct or bias, which will be forwarded to the police for investigation. Currently, residents are generally instructed to make complaints about the police department to the department itself, and the advisory board receives only summaries from the police department at the end of the investigation.
According to the ordinance establishing the board, all complaints are confidential, and reviews of police investigations done by the board will be done in executive session to maintain confidentiality. Vice Mayor Stuart Boley told Fennelly the opposition to general public comment assumed the board wouldn’t operate according to the ordinance, and asked Fennelly if there were steps the city could take to increase the LPOA’s confidence in the board.
Fennelly noted that board members’ contact information is public and residents could reach out that way. He also said he thinks a more appropriate way to address concerns would be to provide a time when residents could ask for topics to be added as future agenda items.
But Boley said there are community concerns that may not be able to wait until the next meeting. Commissioner Lisa Larsen added that the board’s meetings are quarterly, and that if residents had to wait until the next meeting, it could be up to three months before their concerns were addressed.
City Manager Tom Markus also disagreed with the LPOA opposition to general public comment. In reference to the privacy concern, Markus said that in addition to general public comment at City Commission meetings, social media means the risk of such a disclosure is constant.
“The reality is, the risk isn’t just at this meeting,” Markus said. “That risk exists 24/7 that somebody is going to come out and name an officer in a public setting for doing something incorrectly.”
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