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Bill Bones

Boise's top cop on major changes to his department and policing in America


The yearlong rash of excessive force incidents, injuries and even deaths at the hands of police officers in several American cities has had a wide-reaching effect across the nation—Boise included.

"Any police chief in the nation who cares cringes," Boise Police Chief Bill Bones told Boise Weekly. "Even if it happens somewhere else, it damages Boise."

Just this month, the police commissioner of Baltimore was fired in the wake of riots throughout the city, which were triggered by the death of 25-year-old black man Freddie Gray while in police custody. Meanwhile, the FBI has opened a probe into the 2013 police shooting death of a Broward County, Fla. man; a special prosecutor has been named in cases investigating the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of New York police officers; and the U.S. Justice Department found police response to the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. following the fatal police shooting of unarmed 19-year-old black man Michael Brown only worsened tensions.

"I get a sick, pit-in-my stomach feeling, just talking about it right now," Bones said. "When we see that excessive force, there's no way that some of this is acceptable. We see those incidents and know that someday, it's going to happen to you, and you better have years of experience under your belt, where your community knows that those actions have nothing to do with who you are or what your department is."

Bones, 47, is already a 22-year veteran of the Boise Police Department but in many ways, his job is only now beginning. He started 2015 as the city's new top cop, taking the corner office after it was vacated by ex-Chief Mike Masterson, who stepped down after 10 years on the job.

BW sat down with Bones to cover a variety of topics, including his family's law enforcement roots, his ongoing attempt to further diversify his force, the department's relationship with Boise's homeless community, and the soon-to-happen reintroduction of police precincts and first-ever introduction of police body-cameras to the streets of Boise.

I want to take you back to last Dec. 22, the day Boise Mayor Dave Bieter announced that you were his choice to be the next chief. He said, "For at least the past 10 years of his 22 years in the department, Deputy Chief Bones has been grooming himself to be chief. He could have been a chief somewhere else, but we're happy that he'll be the new chief here." I'm presuming that all of that is true.

I must admit to being too driven on goals. A lot of this was timing, a big part of it is the luck of the draw. I recognize that, but I did decide to work toward becoming a chief about five years in, when I first became a sergeant.

But you recognized that there was also a good chance that you would end up being a chief somewhere else?

For years, a number of people thought I was going to leave Boise. Yes, I've had different agencies come and talk to me but soon enough, I decided that I would stay in Boise until I retired. I prepped thoroughly for the chief interview process, but I wasn't stressed at all. I knew that if I hadn't got the job, they would have picked a great chief, and I would be a great deputy chief.

Did Chief Masterson leave anything for you when he retired?

He left me a list. It's about three pages long.

How are you doing with that?

I'm working on it. I'm probably a better manager than Mike was, and I'm pretty good at seeing the future impact of policies, but Mike was phenomenal about seeing the opportunity in things you would never think about.

Maybe the best example of that is the George Nickel incident [Nickel, a decorated veteran who survived a bombing in Iraq, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and, in 2009, went gun barrel-to-gun barrel with police at a Boise apartment complex. Instead of pushing for his prosecution, Masterson and Nickel became friends, and Nickel is a leader of the Idaho Veterans Network]. I'm assuming that the night Nickel was nearly killed by Boise police, and the events that followed, affected serious change to this department.

It changed the way we interact with veterans, for one. More importantly, it was a foundation to have a greater focus on mental illness.

Let's talk for a moment about the science vs. the art of police work. I know that you and your force need your decisions to be fact-driven, but there must be some evolution in the way you're responding to 21st century incidents.

We're always looking at the data and statistics, seeing what's effective. But it almost always comes down to the art of policing and having an understanding of your community.

Does that come with experience? How about the 20-something rookies on your force?

In fact, we can learn a lot from them. Younger officers have newer and, quite often, better ways of thinking. Social media, for example: That's second nature to them. The day is coming very soon when an officer will be communicating with the public, getting the word out on emergencies or missing persons by pushing a picture out on Instagram instead of knocking door-to-door.

Let's talk a bit about you. Law enforcement is in your blood.

I'm the son and grandson of Oregon state troopers, also named William Bones.

So, was it a foregone conclusion that you would wear a badge someday?

Not at all. I had no intention of being a police officer. I saw my dad work long hours for low pay. I remember him racing out the door in the early 1980s to join the hunt for Claude Dallas [the infamous killer of two Idaho game wardens]. I saw the hours he worked, the nights and weekends, and the stress. It was pretty hard.

What were your professional intentions at the time?

I went to school for business and economics. I put myself through school at Oregon State University by fighting fires for the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service each summer. Plus, I worked full-time while I was taking classes.

So, what changed?

It was my senior year in college. I was about to graduate and, honestly, it was one of those epiphany moments. I didn't want to go into business. The CIA was recruiting economics majors, but my dad said, "No. Whatever you do, don't go in the CIA." I thought about the Oregon state troopers, but they weren't hiring. So I started looking at the Treasure Valley, which I always loved.

Did that bring you to Boise?

Actually, I interviewed with the Payette and Boise police departments on the very same day. The interviews were night and day. I was 23 years old.

When you chose the Boise Police Department, what did your dad have to say?

He didn't say anything. But I could sense his pride. It meant a lot to him.

How long have you been married?

Twenty-two years.

That's as long as you've been on the force.

I was still in the POST [Peace Officer Standards and Training] academy. We got one evening a week to leave the academy. So I was set up on a date. I told my daughter never to do this, but I met my wife in November, proposed to her in December and got married the next May.

Can I assume that your wife [Jennifer] is your better half?

We're total opposites. She hates the spotlight. She's the creative one. For years, she worked to decorate offices, homes and parties. Plus, she worked in a florist shop. For years, we would build houses on the side. We would put a lot of work into them, she would decorate them to perfection and we would get a great selling price. We haven't done that in years.

And your daughter? Has she struggled being the daughter of a cop?

Just the opposite. She said, "Dad, not a problem." I'm so impressed with her generation's acceptance on so many things, particularly gender identity, faith, race. It's a different world than what you or I grew up in.

Which brings us to diversity.

Nationwide, U.S. police departments are not even close to representing the communities that we serve.

That has to be reset through hiring practices. Yes?

I think a lot of agencies are trying to hire a diverse workforce but simply aren't attracting that diversity.

But the numbers, nationwide, are horribly skewed to white males. Who's testing here in Boise?

I've got 92 percent white male applicants. We're at 17 percent diversity right in Boise. The community is 11 percent diverse. We would love to be at 27 percent.

You're a lot lower with women on the force.

We're at 11 percent right now. Nationally, we're at 17 percent.

Talk to me about encouraging more women and minorities to join the Boise police force.

You're going to see a change in our images—photos and videos—coming from the department. People have to see themselves in uniform. We need to actively recruit from the military and especially Boise State, where we've been under-recruiting for years.

What do you tell people you're looking for?

Customer-oriented individuals, but you have to be willing to walk through "that door." You know, that dark door, where someone with a gun is on the other side, and they're going to shoot. You have to put other people's lives first.

Speaking of going through that door, let's talk about body cams.

I'm asked about them all the time, and more than a few people are shocked when I say I absolutely love them. They're an incredible tool for accountability and training.

Are prosecutors anxious for Boise police to have body cams?

Not exactly.

Because of the oversight they require?

Especially redaction issues. We'll need at least one, maybe two full-time people. We're looking at a base budget of $250,000 a year.

Is that what's preventing you from getting them?

Cost is a big factor. The technology of the redaction is another, but we're going forward anyway.

I hope you can appreciate our concerns about privacy protections.

Idaho is one of the states that hasn't been too progressive on this. Yes, we should release information, but we shouldn't be compromising the privacy of someone caught in a bathrobe when they answer the door.

I'm sure you're aware that the second media outlets publish those videos, the images will last forever.

We're talking with manufacturers about our ability to turn off the video and keep the audio, especially if we're simply interviewing someone in their home because they're a possible witness.

When might we see the body cams in Boise?

You'll probably see me make an announcement in about a week about our presentation to the City Council. You're certainly going to be seeing them within the next year.

Does that mean this is in your next budget?

We've submitted for federal grant money. Plus, we'll probably use some of our funds from savings.

Another big change in the works is decentralization and the reintroduction of precincts to neighborhoods.

We've waited for years, mostly due to the lack of facilities.

I've heard that there is some downtown property that you have your eyes on.

Three different options. We're moving forward with what we call a micro-district for downtown. Maybe it's just a small station that we'll work out of until we secure a larger station.

Define downtown.

The St. Luke's/Broadway area all the way west to the Whitewater Park. We'll capture the state buildings around State Street and then go all the way south to Boise State and its area of impact. The first pieces of this will be up and running this fall.

The only place I know that is immediately available is the little office on the first floor of City Hall.

If we have to, we're going to remodel that office to get things going, but we're looking at a couple of other locations.

Can you tell us where they are?

Not yet. There are some politics involved. We really see a precinct as a catalyst for new development and construction in the downtown area.

Speaking of downtown, how would you best characterize your department's relationship with those people who are without a home?

One hundred times better than most cities. We have a much higher interaction with them than our general population. They're on the streets and they're much more vulnerable. Plus, they're preyed upon by people who take advantage of them. We're seeing some new folks coming in from out of town who are exploiting that advantage.

Where do you start with something like that?

Enforcement is always our last option. It's 100 degrees [outside], and that can be a concrete jungle.

A year ago at this time, scores of homeless individuals were escaping the heat under the bridge on Americana Boulevard, near Rhodes Park. Now, that area is destined for a high-profile, million dollar overhaul.

It started that there was some panhandling nearby. More people started waiting around there. It grew and grew, and then one or two people had some hoarding issues.

But you swept that area clean.

We cleaned it multiple times. We worked for months to get people alternative places, because we knew the Rhodes Park development was coming.

Are you saying there hasn't been much friction because of that change? It's all fenced off now.

We did it slowly and we did it right. We didn't have any big confrontations.

But aren't they simply being pushed elsewhere? The need for services for that part of the population has never been greater.

We're the third-lowest spending state in the nation for mental health service. People are falling through the cracks. Who's being asked to catch them? Police. That's not how to deal with this. We have to get people out of the incarceration cycle. Our officers want to help, but there are simply too few services.

Is that the big thing that Boise needs that it doesn't have now?</p>

It's Boise. It's Idaho. My department is very lucky. Our city council funds us, and we have great community support. If we didn't have that, we wouldn't have much. And we'd be in the same position that a lot of other police departments find themselves right now.