Lawrence City Commission hears updates on police policy, decriminalization of poverty

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Members of the Lawrence City Commission received an update about the Lawrence Police Department’s progress toward a lengthy list of improvement goals at Tuesday’s meeting.  

This follows a report from consultant group Citygate Associates that recommended that Lawrence’s police set measurable goals to increase cultural awareness and improve engagement with different racial and ethnic groups.  


Interim Police Chief Adam Heffley described some of the steps taken toward meeting these expectations so far. Some of them are considered completed, such as providing an advocate for sexual assault and domestic violence victims, using new software to track complaints, and implementing Lawrence-specific training for new hires from other police departments. Several goals remain in progress, such as implementing new implicit bias training and leveling the hiring process similarly for all candidates regardless of experience. Others, Heffley said, “we’ve yet to lean into too far.”

Heffley explained these goals haven’t reached completion yet for various reasons, ranging from lack of internal staff to just needing further consideration. Regardless of each goal’s status, he said the overall list will be an ongoing transition for the Lawrence police, not a “one and done” checklist.

In the meantime, the department is working on an online “interactive road map” where residents can track the progress of each of the 75 goals themselves, which Heffley said will be hopefully be online in the next couple of weeks.  

“This is, in my opinion, how we keep engaged with the public on this so that this report with recommendations doesn’t become a document that gets thrown in a drawer,” Heffley said. “(The recommendations) are going to evolve with the needs and service levels that the community expects. They’re going to evolve with technology, they’re going to evolve in relation to staffing and how we expect law enforcement to police with the community.”  

• Commissioners heard an overview of  how the ‘8 Can’t Wait’ policies aiming to prevent police killings apply to Lawrence.  

The LPD meets some criteria set by the ‘8 Can’t Wait’ campaign. Some of the campaign’s goals, including the banning of chokeholds and restricting officers from shooting at moving vehicles, are authorized in cases when the use of “deadly force is justified” under LPD policy, Heffley said. He said although there might be concern about violence or “bad events” under the existing policy, these concerns can be combatted by evolving police training, keeping a strong policy, and police officers remaining under supervision.  

“What we’re talking about, in my opinion, is as a department and as a city government, how do we prevent a bad event from occurring?” Heffley said. “I believe we are trying to do the best, given the rapidly evolving situations that our officers are dealing with and are placed in.”  

Although commissioners identified this as another item that will continue to evolve, some expressed concern that the exceptional language in the existing policy — such as “unless deadly force is justified” — might create a lack of trust in the police from the community.  

“It doesn’t hurt us to look specifically at some changes we could make that would still leave room for the safety of officers but move closer to some expectations from our community,” Vice Mayor Courtney Shipley said. “There are lots of times in the American legal system where the law interferes with justice. Any officer will be able to tell you that immediately.” 

•  City staff also discussed taking steps to decriminalize poverty through the city’s code.  

The city attorney’s office presented the commissioners with a list of ordinances that may place a burden on people in poverty, such as jaywalking or having a broken windshield.  

Jolene Anderson of the Douglas County Anti-Poverty Workgroup spoke to the importance of considering the cycle that begins when someone can’t afford a car repair and later can’t afford a court fine, either. 

“That felt like it really could exacerbate poverty,” Anderson said. “You can see how this can spiral downward, and it unequally affects BIPOC (Black people, Indigenous people and People of Color).” 

City staff discussed the difficulty of balancing community values and standards with presenting residents in need with challenges that might impact their lives in the long term, such as the consequences of a criminal ticket instead of a code violation. Commissioner Jennifer Ananda said the nature of discussions like this are determining how to help those in need in the community, not punish them.  

“I think that’s, for me, kind of the heart of this dialogue,” Ananda said. “There are things that we don’t want to say are OK, but to punish for them is not the ideal response.”  

Commissioners agreed that the conversation should continue, with City Manager Craig Owens offering to revisit commissioners with a more concrete process for decriminalization in the coming weeks. Mayor Brad Finkeldei said he’s seen the ways other communities choose to address safety measures like this, and it’s important to determine how much flexibility Lawrence’s city staff, prosecutors and judges should have.  

“I certainly have seen people get in the spiral,” Finkeldei said. “I think it’s all part of the puzzle that we have to continue to look at and try to find the right balance for Lawrence.”  

In other business:

• Ananda said that because of a new obligation she has on Tuesdays, she must step down from her role as the Lawrence City Commission representative on the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Ananda mentioned Finkeldei’s legal background and suggested he might be well-suited for the role. Commissioner Lisa Larsen said she held the CJCC spot before Ananda and indicated that she would be interested in serving again. The CJCC’s next meeting is set for Tuesday, Sept. 14.

• The commission approved the budget it discussed at its Aug. 31 meeting.

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