Laramie working group to make 6 policing recommendations
The police-community working group will return to the Laramie City Council next month. The group recommends a new mental health response model, but little in the way of an oversight board.
Following the George Floyd protests of 2020, when demonstrators took to the streets demanding police accountability, the Laramie City Council agreed to consider the establishment of a civilian oversight board.
More than one and half years later, the city is still in the consideration phase.
A working group established last year to investigate the issue and advise council on a course of action is set to deliver its recommendations next month. When it does, those recommendations will include changes to the way the Laramie Police Department handles mental health calls, a new anonymous complaint system, and increased communication between the department and the citizenry.
But the recommendations stop short of a full-throated endorsement for civilian oversight, instead recommending that the council continue to “investigate the establishment of” an oversight board. This is something the council was already doing before the formation of the working group.
Co-chair Tracey Rosenlund said she is disappointed the final recommendations won’t advance the conversation further.
“It prolongs the potential for implementing oversight and by prolonging the path we take, the possibility that oversight won’t be implemented is also incorporated,” Rosenlund said. “Certainly, the passion that was displayed in the summer of 2020 surrounding this locally has subsided. And so whether that was intentional or not, I’m not sure. But continuing to draw it out doesn’t leave me feeling very optimistic.”
But opinions are mixed. The group’s other co-chair, retired LPD Commander Mitchell Cushman, is more hopeful about the recommendations. He said it was important to bring together different viewpoints on what is often a contentious issue.
“I liked the format of this group,” Cushman said. “I think that people who are in the community sometimes cloister around people who believe the same way that they do. When you get to these groups that have a unified goal to listen to information and speak their mind and then are able to vote their minds too — I think it’s a microcosm of what the world should be like.”
The group had 22 voting members from a variety of backgrounds; one-third of the members were current or former law enforcement, a fact that was itself contentious.
But Cushman said the group’s composition was a strength.
“For anything to really come to a conclusion, it had to be agreed to by a lot of different types of backgrounds,” he said. “That’s the advantage of a large group. The disadvantage, of course, is that it’s not quite as efficient as a smaller group.”
But Cushman compared the process to sharpening iron.
“You lose little bits of yourself when that happens. But at the same time, you become a sharper, a better, more productive tool,” he said. “I like the format where people are forced to get together who don’t believe the same things. And I like the fact that we could come up with some solutions that all of us could agree on.”
But Rosenlund viewed the group’s size and its divisions as a hindrance to crafting meaningful recommendations.
“It was difficult to get down into some of the nitty gritty details of what it might look like,” she said. “Instead, it seemed to me like we returned recommendations that were really general and didnt have specifics on them.”
The working group serves in a strictly advisory role. Once the group delivers its recommendations to the city council, the councilors can choose to accept, reject or modify each suggestion.
“Ultimately, the form that these recommendations will take is up to city council,” Rosenlund said.
Mental Health Calls
Recommendation One: “The City Council should implement a response model by mental health professionals for the Laramie Police Department with the ability to consult with the Albany County Mental Health Board on this endeavor. The City should support a collaborative effort with the County on mental health responses.”
Recommendation Two: “The City Council should prioritize work on mental health response opportunities for the Laramie Police Department, and these efforts should involve data collection and program evaluation as allowed by law. The City Council should explore partnering with the University of Wyoming on data collection and program evaluation.”
The working group’s first two recommendations address LPD’s protocol for responding to mental health calls.
“We certainly talked about a number of different ways to have a co-response model implemented here in Laramie between LPD and mental health professionals of some kind,” Rosenlund said. “That’s not in place right now.”
Cushman said the first recommendation is broad and leaves council to decide the specifics.
“There are multiple different things that could happen under this,” he said. “It would depend on what model they pick. This was a general recommendation to say, ‘Hey listen, we know there are issues with mental health responses by law enforcement, especially ones where the person is having issues.’”
A true co-response model would have an officer and a counselor responding to a call together. But other possible models would keep law enforcement on standby, allowing a counselor time to approach the individual alone.
Cushman said there are benefits and drawbacks to each model, and law enforcement faces a number of considerations every time they are tasked with responding to someone experiencing a mental health crisis.
“No matter why they are presenting the way that they are, you want to make sure that others are safe around them,” Cushman said. “And so there’s always the question of control versus safety. If no one else is there and you’ve got a call from a passerby that they’re out in the middle of a field, law enforcement can take their time and talk to the person. But if he’s in the middle of an elementary gym class, right smack dab in the school, there’s a different priority that kicks in about how much leeway and time you can give.”
Laramie is home to several law enforcement agencies. The police department, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, the University of Wyoming Police Department and the Wyoming Highway Patrol are all regularly active within city limits. Federal agencies, from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also drop in and coordinate or communicate with local agencies.
Any of the local agencies could be the first to respond to any given call, given the urgency of the call and the proximity of an officer to the call location.
“Even though these decisions are for the Laramie Police Department, and these recommendations were for the Laramie Police Department, it will change a process for probably all those law enforcement agencies in our area,” Cushman said.
The second recommendation is related to the first and calls on the city to continually evaluate whatever model it chooses, with help from the University of Wyoming.
“One of the things that police departments may or may not do well is make sure their evaluation of their program might be independent,” Cushman said. “It might feel good to do a program, kind of like the D.A.R.E. program was back in the 80s and early 90s, (but) after you find out the educational process of this is not working well, it gets quit, it gets stopped … We just didn’t want to waste time with something that wasn’t working.”
Both the first and second recommendation received widespread support from the working group’s members. For each, there were 17 votes in favor, 0 opposed, 1 abstention, and 4 absences.
Civilian Oversight Board
Recommendation Three: “The City Council and City Manager's office should consult with NACOLE to investigate the creation of a Civilian Oversight Board that could function under Wyoming state statute and International City Managers Association guidelines.”
The third recommendation was by the far the most contentious — receiving a split vote from the working group’s members and just barely making the cut for inclusion among the final recommendations.
It’s also a fairly weak recommendation, Rosenlund said, as it only advocates for continued consideration and does not state emphatically that Laramie does or does not need an oversight board.
“To me, it kind of sounds like what they passed in the 2020 resolution, except without the NACOLE part specifically,” she said. “As far as the creation of a civilian oversight board recommendation, that certainly didn’t move very far forward.”
Nor does the recommendation offer much in the way of specifics about what an oversight board could look like or what activities it could be tasked with, Rosenlund said.
“I was a lot more hopeful that we could put something forward that would have more substance,” she said. “There’s so much that goes into all of this, we could have used more time. And I think it would have been wise.”
Cushman said he’s not convinced an oversight board would increase transparency, since its main function in other municipalities seems to be post-hoc.
“(The recommendation) allows the city council to say that the votes passed for more investigation into the creation of,” he said. “It’s not like ‘don’t do it.’”
But he admits that recommendation three has less force behind it, having barely received majority support.
“With this split, it’s going to be up to the council to determine how dedicated they want to be with that,” he said.
At least one-third of the group’s voting members were current or former members of law enforcement. But Rosenlund said the wider issue was that people came to the working group with different beliefs about the core issue at stake — some were interested in implementing oversight infrastructure, while others viewed the main problem as one of communication between police and citizens.
Rosenlund said the shortened time frame kept those two groups from coming to a consensus.
“It was certainly others aside from current or former law enforcement who were resistant to meaningful discussions of oversight,” she said. “How large of a group it was, and the inclusion of everyone who was a part of it, made it difficult to be able to get through topics in an expeditious fashion and analyze them.”
There were 10 votes in favor, 8 opposed, 2 abstentions, and 2 absences.
Public Relations, Education
Recommendation Four: “The City Council should investigate the creation of a police and community committee to serve as a volunteer group to build a more effective partnership between the Laramie Police Department and the community, specifically looking at increasing transparency of Department’s activities. Membership on the committee would include formerly incarcerated individuals and individuals from underserved or otherwise disadvantaged groups from within the city. The city council should collect data to evaluate any program instituted under this recommendation.”
Recommendation Five: “The City Council should investigate the creation of a citizen academy. The City Council should collect data to evaluate any program instituted under this recommendation.”
The fourth and fifth recommendations would see the city establish a police-community relations committee and a citizen academy. Both aim to communicate LPD’s actions and decisions to the wider public.
“The police and community committee is more of a generalized idea to work more as a partner, instead of an oversight, with the police department to make them more transparent,” Cushman said.
Members of the committee could, for example, request that LPD release new kinds of information in new formats that would do a better job of reaching certain populations. One of the committee’s strengths would be the inclusion of formerly jailed and imprisoned individuals, Cushman said.
“You would probably get more realistic feedback than from a random telephone survey or something like that,” he said. “You would actually have people who have seen the police department in action from various points of view and would be able to give the police department great feedback on how they are viewed from different areas of experience.”
Rosenlund said such a committee could be used to increase transparency, but, as written, has little to do with checking power.
“This recommendation isn’t written in a way that would provide oversight,” she said. “It’s more to provide communication. And they would want a wide range of people who would sit on it, who would be able to ask questions or help provide interpretation and take that message back to smaller groups within which they live and hopefully those people would continue to share the information among themselves.”
The citizen academy would allow everyday people to receive some of the same training law enforcement does.
“You would get access to the fun stuff, like shoot-or-don’t-shoot scenarios that are on screen … that show when you shot and the decisions that you made,” Cushman said. “So you would get a taste of what it’s like to be a law enforcement officer.”
Enrollees in such a citizen academy could also get a taste for making police reports and how law enforcement officers interact with the court, among other aspects of an officer's day-to-day life.
“That’s truly a transparent type of education, where somebody could sign up for that and really go through the same process the police department does,” Cushman said. “And you could understand what their limitations are and what their obligations are.”
The police-community committee had unanimous support from the group members who voted on it. There were 18 votes in favor, 0 opposed, 1 abstention, and 3 absences.
The citizen academy also received majority support. There were 13 votes in favor, 4 opposed, 2 abstentions, and 3 absences.
Recommendation Six: The City Council should investigate a complaint process that allows citizens to file complaints outside of the Laramie Police Department.
The sixth recommendation would give Laramie residents an additional option for lodging complaints about the LPD, its officers or their actions.
“There are multiple ways to file a complaint regarding an officer or LPD – you can email the chief of police and there is a portal on the city’s website you can lodge a complaint through,” Rosenlund said. “This recommendation is intended to create some type of avenue for people to lodge complaints outside of those current ones.”
Cushman said a complaint-lodging location outside the police department was a fine idea. An offline, anonymous location, like a dropbox, would also increase access.
“People were concerned that if it comes through a law enforcement area, that law enforcement could ignore it or no one else would know about it,” Cushman said. “They’re trying to make it a little more accessible in case people don’t have the opportunity to use smartphones or computers.”
Establishing a new complaint process had unanimous support from the group members who voted on it. There were 18 votes in favor, 0 opposed, 1 abstention, and 3 absences.