City of Lawton officials are moving forward with plans to create a citizens advisory board to work with the Lawton Police Department.
Council members made the decision Tuesday, confirming city staff may continue the work to create a policy that would govern what supporters envision as a seven-member board whose main task would be facilitating relations between residents and city police. The discussion wasn’t without controversy; members of the Lawton Chapter of the NAACP said they were excluded from preliminary discussions about the advisory board even though they brought the idea to the council three years ago, while a long-time Lawton minister said he brought the idea to then-city manager before that.
According to city administrators, citizens have suggested the advisory board as a way to increase the public’s trust in the police department and increase participation by residents.
The entity would be strictly advisory, said Police Chief James Smith, explaining it would not be an oversight committee and would not have access to police personnel records or confidential documents, and would not give direction on disciplinary measures.
What it will do, Smith said, is provide “better communication with our community,” joining with other measures that Lawton police already engage in with residents, to include a successful Neighborhood Watch program and the Citizens Police Academy. But, Smith said city police also do things that citizens don’t understand, “especially in the time we’re living in,” and the advisory board could help bridge that gap.
“The public wants to know why we’re doing things,” he said, adding the board also could direct issues to city police.
Mayor Stan Booker said that would be done through the Race Relations Commission, another citizens-based board being established by the City of Lawton to facilitate interaction between police and residents.
City officials said preliminary discussions have been made about the advisory board, but city staff wanted council permission before the informal group begins to create a specific policy to guide the board’s operations. Tuesday’s council agenda included a draft policy intended as a template for those discussions, according to city officials. That draft policy identified 10 activities in which the board would engage then make recommendations to the chief of police and, potentially, the city manager.
Membership was suggested at seven residents, plus three non-voting members representing the council, Lawton Police Department and Fort Sill. Ethnic and cultural organizations would be encouraged to submit candidates for consideration on the board, under that draft policy.
The Rev. Thomas Perry, president of the Lawton Chapter of the NAACP, criticized those preliminary discussions, asking why the NAACP membership had not been included when that organization first brought the idea of an advisory board to the council in 2017 as a way to “bridge the gap between citizens and you.”
“It saddens us. We were the ones to do this in 2017,” Perry said, adding no one from the recent discussion group approached the NAACP about participating.
Perry said the draft policy essentially uses most of what the NAACP suggested three years ago, excluding language pertaining to excessive force and police brutality. He also said the NAACP’s suggestion was selecting citizens to represent each city ward, rather than being residents picked by the council.
Pete Raphel, also addressing the 2017 proposal, said council members didn’t make a decision then, but he remains interested in the idea.
“I’d like to be on the ground floor,” he said, adding it is important NAACP membership be represented.
Bishop John Dunaway said the original idea for the advisory board stems from a discussion he had with then-City Manager Larry Mitchell in 2007, calling Mitchell the “first city official to see the document.” He said he and the Rev. Willie Guest worked with the city on the original draft, which also included a proposal that would have allowed that advisory board to see personnel files. City officials said the proposal for personnel files was the sticking point when the issue was presented to the council, because council members indicated then and now such files cannot be opened to the public.
Booker, who initiated Tuesday’s item, said it was time to resurrect the idea and that was the point: getting council approval for what will be a time-intensive project to craft the policy that will govern the advisory board and its work.
“It’s reached the point where staff can’t work on this until you give direction,” he said, adding the completed policy will be brought back to the council for approval.
Ward 7 Councilwoman Onreka Johnson, a member of the council study committee working to create a Race Relations Commission, said issues that arise before that body would be referred to the Citizens Advisory Board for action. The study committee has closed its application process and will begin reviewing and interviewing candidates for the commission over the next two weeks.
Booker said residents included in creating the advisory board, which will include the NAACP, must be methodical.
“Other cities are watching how we are doing this,” he said.