Post updated at 5:56 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 12:
Frustration abounds as a community board created to advise the Lawrence Police Department and oversee complaints has made little progress in more than a year, and a new work group has yet to meet.
In addition, Sanjay Mishra and Tonia Salvini, who had served on the Community Police Review Board since it was created in August 2018, both resigned in mid-December. So did board member Jenny Robinson, whose term began in August 2020.
Mishra said he resigned from the CPRB because he’s had another commitment come up, and it would be too much to try to do both. Salvini said she resigned for medical reasons. Their departures also mean that Stephanie Littleton is the last remaining original member of the CPRB.
Robinson said she stepped down for personal reasons after a great deal of deliberation: “I wanted to make room for someone who was truly energized and had space to engage with this important work.”
Meanwhile, some members of the more recently created Community-Police Oversight Work Group — which has yet to meet after Lawrence City Commissioners appointed them in August — are growing disappointed.
“A big piece of this disappointment I feel is that prolonging this work means prolonging the ripple effects this work will contribute to,” Alex Kimball Williams, a CPOWG member, said via email Wednesday.
The first CPOWG meeting is now on the horizon, but it’s been a long time coming.
An abridged history
Robinson said it feels like the CPRB has been in a holding pattern since members spoke with the Lawrence City Commission a year ago and addressed proposed changes to the existing ordinance that lays out the board’s responsibilities, shared their concerns regarding an outside consultant’s recommendations, and sought clarity regarding next steps for the board.
Members of the CPRB have long wanted greater authority than city law currently allows — a scope so narrow that until September 2022, the board had not reviewed a single complaint. The current ordinance only allows CPRB members to review appeals of the Lawrence Police Department’s decisions in complaints about bias-based policing.
The group wanted the authority to review other types of complaints.
“What we want is to be able to have transparency, to see the complaints; to be able to tell the community that (LPD is) doing a proper job in the way that they’re handling the complaints,” Littleton said Wednesday.
Starting in 2020, at the direction of the Lawrence City Commission, board members began to draft an ordinance that expanded their duties. They also did some community engagement work to see what the public thought their role should be. But an outside consultant, Citygate, completed a review of LPD in May 2021 and suggested that the CPRB and police department form a task force to determine the best way to move forward.
The CPRB members continued their work but wrote a letter to the Lawrence City Commission later that year, seeking clarity on how they should proceed with the ordinance they’d been working on in light of Citygate’s recommendation. They also wrote that they felt the consultants lacked the background knowledge to understand the process of how the revised ordinance came to be, which was largely at commissioners’ direction. And CPRB member Jane Gibson resigned in February 2022 over what she saw as an effort to turn the board into little more than “window dressing.”
The CPRB in May 2022 approved a project charter to create the new Community-Police Oversight Work Group, which includes more representation from the police department and is intended to review the CPRB’s draft ordinance and assess the existing complaint policies, procedures and systems. The Lawrence City Commission approved the plan in June, and in August, appointed five community members to serve on the work group, which also includes two members of the Lawrence Police Officers’ Association (police union), two members of the LPD command staff, and three members of the CPRB.
Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire said in August that a facilitator would meet with each individual member of the work group first to get an idea of their hopes and goals, and to develop a collective understanding, tentatively beginning by early September. Shortly thereafter, the group meetings would begin. McGuire said he anticipated five to seven total group meetings, and the city was hoping to complete the work within a four-month timeframe.
The city on Sept. 27 entered into a $20,000 contract with a consulting team led by Jonathan Morris to facilitate the new work group. CPOWG members had their initial interviews with the consultant in late October.
Since then, members of both the CPRB and CPOWG have seen little to no forward progress.
Outgoing and incoming board member concerns
The three recently resigned members shared some frustrations with the process and how long it is taking, as well as the status of the CPRB as a whole.
“When the Community Police Oversight Task Force was created (the charter was drafted in April 2022), we were told that the creation of a new ordinance would be a priority, and that this process would likely take a matter of a few months,” Robinson said via email Sunday. “As of today, that task force has yet to meet, and the CPRB is left with their existing ordinance that allows the City to say that they have a Community Police Review Board, but does not actually allow the Board to review complaints with any depth unless they meet strict criteria.
“The CPRB is able to do meaningful work under their existing ordinance, however serving as a review board that has the power to ensure that our police department is fairly investigating and tracking complaints does not seem to be part of that work,” Robinson continued. “The CPRB requires an updated, functional ordinance from the task force that clarifies their role and allows them to fulfill the duties that our community needs and expects of them.”
Mishra said the CPRB members had also been asking for information about where the CPOWG stood.
“We kept asking that question, ‘give us updates,’ and certain other people in the community have been asking for that,” Mishra said. “And even in the board, we did not get updates. The only update we got is ‘The consultant is talking to people.’”
He said there “absolutely” were improvements during his years on the board. He mentioned specifically that Lawrence Police Chief Rich Lockhart started to share information about some complaints the department receives, which was far more than the board heard in the years prior. But the board still wanted an ordinance “with teeth,” he said.
Mishra has also pushed for the department to begin tracking metrics to determine whether it’s improving on issues of implicit bias from year to year, but he’s gotten little buy-in.
“Bias isn’t about how the general community feels; it’s about how a few people feel,” he said.
Salvini said she had been looking forward to participating in the CPOWG, but after the last CPRB meeting in November, she wasn’t sure whether she’d want to continue.
“The dynamics of the group have changed in a way that I’m not sure supports what our intentions were on changing the ordinance and having more of a role,” Salvini said.
Two of the incoming CPOWG members shared concerns as well. Harrison Baker said he was disappointed with the speed of the process.
“I was afraid that this Board would be like other review boards that get formed, then they never meet, and then eventually they get disbanded,” he said in a message Wednesday. “I do not want that to be the fate of this board, but there’s been so little activity that it concerns me.”
Kimball Williams said she’s also disappointed that the timeline has been stretched this far.
“As an incredibly busy person who has managed a ton of projects, I definitely understand from a capacity & organization perspective how timelines can pan out,” she said via email Wednesday. “I don’t think that a slower timeline automatically means it’s unimportant to local leadership. Rushing these processes doesn’t do anything beneficial for the people most negatively affected.”
But she said “there’s a difference between (1) leaning into slow, meaningful equity & divesting from white supremacist urgency, & (2) letting the ball drop – or worse, stalling a project perhaps intentionally.”
“If I could stress one thing to local leadership, it would be that the relationships you have with the police department are not what the community sees & feels,” she said. “It’s easier to feel at ease around police when you work with them. But when you have no leverage with police officers & you’re under their armed surveillance in the community, it’s a very different feeling. Stalling this process means more of us are living our lives with that level of fear day in & day out.”
On Wednesday, Lockhart said the city is looking at Monday, Jan. 3o for the first CPOWG meeting. The meetings will be open to the public. (We’ll post the time and location once they’re firmed up.)
“I don’t have an explanation for the delay other than it took longer than expected for those interviews given the number of participants and the holidays,” he said.
He, too, said he’s frustrated by the pace of progress.
“One of my priorities when I started as the Chief was to work with the CPRB to increase trust and accountability in our community,” Lockhart said via email Wednesday. “This is complex work and while it is slow moving, I believe the workgroup will accomplish some positive results for our community and police department.”
Littleton and James Minor are the CPRB members who plan to serve on the CPOWG. Since Salvini resigned, Littleton said the board will look to choose another member to take her place. Lockhart said the board members can discuss that at their meeting Thursday.
Now down to four members and following quite a bit of turnover — five total members have resigned, and another member’s term ended, within the past 12 months — the CPRB is unable to do much work, Littleton said. Subcommittees within that board will have to be reassigned once the vacant seats are filled.
Mishra said he, Robinson and Salvini did not plan to resign at the same time, but he thinks the timing is good. Recently selected Mayor Lisa Larsen will be able to appoint people to the three vacant seats to guide the CPRB into the future.
He said he’s hopeful that the board will be active rather than reactive.
“I am an optimist, so I hope the police will have much more oversight than in the past,” Mishra said. “… I hope the community will stay engaged to keep the police and the board on track.”
In the meantime, Lockhart, regarding community members’ concerns like the fears Kimball Williams described, said his door is always open “and the table has a seat for anyone who wants to work together to make the LKPD the best it can be.”
“If there are people who have those feelings, I want to meet with them to work on those fears right away,” he said. “That work can start tomorrow.”
The CPRB is set to meet Thursday evening with a fairly short agenda, but board members are looking forward to hearing an update on the CPOWG, Littleton said.
The Community Police Review Board will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday (Jan. 12) at Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. The meetings are also livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel.
Written public comment can be submitted via email to firstname.lastname@example.org until noon Thursday. Members of the public can provide comment during the meeting in person or virtually via Zoom; register for the Zoom meeting at this link.
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.