June 16, 2021
Lawrence, US 92 F
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Kirsten Kuhn: Curbing overpolicing begins at City Hall (Column)

Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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For more than a year now, our community has been talking about police reform. And certainly, attempts to address entrenched practices, written policies and increased accountability within law enforcement are worthy causes. 

But there is an easier and more direct way to reduce the burden of overpolicing in Douglas County: simply remove the authorization for these interactions in the first place.

Many of the powers police exercise regularly are enforcements of local ordinances created by local governing bodies. Whether it’s the Douglas County Commission, or the Baldwin, Eudora, or Lawrence city commissions, somebody codified the authority of police to arrest over nonviolent conduct that does not endanger public safety. 

Authority to initiate interactions over nonthreatening activities allows law enforcement officials to utilize their own discretion, thus allowing their biases or personal predictions to determine both who is subject to enforcement and how aggressively the enforcement is pursued. Authority to detain over a minor statutory violation also allows law enforcement the opportunity to escalate to a higher charge, trapping people more deeply in the system.

The Lawrence municipal code clearly sets the attitude for officers as enforcers of law, rather than peace officers. City Code 13-105 explicitly dictates, it “shall be their duty, respectively, at all times to the best of their ability, to preserve good order, peace and quiet and enforce the laws and ordinances of the City. They shall have power, and it shall be their duty, to arrest all persons found in the act of violating any law or ordinance of the City, or aiding or abetting any such violation. It shall be their duty to make complaints against any and every person violating the laws and ordinances of the City and cause such person to be brought to trial” (emphases mine).

This is not language designed to seek justice. It immediately indicates to officers a certain style of behavior — that of criminalizing conduct, as opposed to focusing on service to the community. 

A brief reading of our local municipal ordinances (Chapter 14) demonstrates the overcriminalization within our community. Violations of the littering and trespassing laws are punishable by up to 180 days in jail. Possession of cannabis can result in up to a year, as can possession of brass knuckles. It’s six months for illegal camping, for graffiti, and for not removing graffiti from your property if the city tells you to do so. It’s 30 days for maintaining a public nuisance, which is simply “knowingly causing or permitting a condition to exist which injures or endangers the public health, safety, or welfare.” That’s certainly too vague and ripe for abuse.

Other infractions that can result in jail time include communicating with county jail prisoners without the consent of the jail staff, failing to remove the lock or door on a discarded refrigerator, owning a theater and letting people stand in the aisles, launching a sky lantern, and being a 17-year-old in public at 11:01 p.m. on a Thursday (or being that minor’s parent). These are nonviolent behaviors that have no business being subject to a forcible response and caging as punishment. 

If total repeal of these ordinances is not possible, cite-and-release can be a viable alternative. Upon encountering a violation, the officer simply writes a ticket, which is paid by the violator at a later point. There is no arrest, so there is less chance for misunderstanding, overreaction, or abuse. The program is easy to implement and cost-effective, and it has the potential to save enormous amounts of officer time. There is every reason to explore this beyond the misdemeanor level as well.

The solution to police overreach is simply to remove the authority to arrest in such a wide swath of contexts. By their very nature, misdemeanor offenses do not present a clear public safety risk. 

Ordinances that criminalize poverty, status and culture enable police to target disenfranchised and vulnerable communities. Simply stripping these ordinances from the books is the most basic way to reduce not only the community disruption that occurs as a result of overpolicing, but also the frequency of police encounters that could result in a tragedy. A cite-and-release system would be an improvement, too. 

Either way, the place to start is at our local commissions. If we truly want to curtail police power, the easiest way is through ordinance.

— Kirsten Kuhn (she/her) is a super awesome Libertarian porcupine residing in Palmyra Township. She believes in personal freedom and self-determination for all people and enjoys gardening and beekeeping in her spare time. She can be reached at douglascountylibertarians@gmail.com or @KSLibertarians on Twitter. 

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