A large portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr., dressed in preacher's robes, hangs high on the back wall of the Idaho Black History Museum. King's gaze is stern, but "if you look, you'll see the tear in his left eye," said museum board member Phillip Thompson.
The portrait set the tone for a March 19 community forum that focused on police relations with the public.
"We shouldn't be policing communities: We should be providing police services," Boise Police Chief "Bill" Bones told the gathering.
The event, organized by Thompson, featured discussions with Bones; Boise Democratic Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb; Ada County Sheriff Capt. Steve Bartlett; and Leo Morales, the communications and advocacy director of ACLU-Idaho.
The forum was the latest outreach event by BPD, following the department's first Coffee with a Cop gathering hosted on March 17. At another community relations forum at Boise State Public Radio in February, Bones announced BPD's search for a mental health coordinator to educate officers on how to deal with people suffering from mental illness and to streamline services for those in crisis.
The BPD's history with the community is mixed. During a nearly two-year span in the late 1990s officers were involved in seven shootings, leading to the creation of the Office of the Community Ombudsman to provide civilian oversight of the police. The ombudsman position was filled by Pierce Murphy for more than a decade until his departure in 2013 . Since then it has been staffed on an interim basis and in February Boise City Hall reduced the job to part-time.
The ombudsman role surfaced during the March 19 forum.
"I'm very surprised the mayor [Dave Bieter] went with part-time," said Morales. "What is the community going to think about that?"
Police also addressed race relations stemming from the officer-involved deaths of Eric Garner, of Staten Island, N.Y, and Michael Brown, of Ferguson, Mo., in summer 2014.
Bartlett described the nationwide outrage following the deaths of Garner and Brown as a chance for the Ada County Sheriff's Office to change how it interacts with communities.
"We've had the benefit of looking at what's going well and what's not going well nationally," he said. "We are not above saying, 'We can do it better.'"
By "better," officials meant moving to a model of community policing that stresses a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach.
For example, Hispanic and refugee populations continue to grow in the Treasure Valley, and BPD and the Ada County Sheriff's Office say they are working to ensure those communities are adequately policed. Bones said at the forum that the department already has a refugee liaison and he'd like to deploy more officers to walk neighborhood beats in order to establish better connections. Bartlett garnered applause when he spoke of the sheriff's commitment to improving police access for those who speak English as a second language—or don't speak it at all.
"We need to be able to speak any language we may encounter," he said.
While changes are in the works at area law enforcement agencies, members of the panel and those in attendance expressed concern about police-involved "critical incidents," including the Feb. 16 shooting death of Michael Casper. Others wondered how Bones will address police camaraderie that, they worried, reinforces negative behaviors. Some reported instances in which police have allegedly shown racial bias.
"Never forget about 'driving while black.' There may be an assumption about who you are, why you're there," said Buckner-Webb.
Boise Democratic Rep. Sue Chew gave an example of being pulled over in an unspecified town outside Boise. She was stopped because the officer "thought I was a drunk Indian going to the ball game." When she brought the incident to the attention of a local city council member, she was told to "'leave it be,' that these people would come after me," she said.
Stories like that worry law enforcement and community leaders. Morales pointed out that experiences like Chew's are evidence of systemic racism, and the actions of one officer can taint community perceptions of police. Bones described the fear of police retribution as "common." Bartlett was disgusted with the story, and told the audience that if anyone had a police interaction similar to Chew's, he or she is welcome to call his office directly.
"Call my office any time," Bartlett said.