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Mike Masterson: The Exit Interview

Boise's second-longest serving police chief sits down with Boise Weekly


Second-guessing Mike Masterson is a fool's errand. Yes, he tows a very hard line when it comes to the letter of the law, but Boise's 36th chief of police is also an agent of change. And when the soon-to-retire chief turns in his badge and gun in January 2015 after 10 years on the job--Boise's second-longest serving police chief (John Church served from 1968-1983)--Masterson's legacy will be defined by that change. Some of it has been popular (10-to-10 tailgating), some of it is progressive (a greater focus on mental illness), some of it provocative (the use of military hardware) and some of it has been controversial (tightening the grip on panhandling).

Boise Weekly has interviewed Masterson on several occasions during his decade in office and, to his credit, the chief has always spoken plainly and never skirted around any issue. But when we sat down for one final long-form conversation, even we were surprised by some of his answers. In fact, Masterson revealed that before he leaves office, he wants to help effect one more major change: rethinking how quick we are to criminalize underage drinking.

Nothing in our nearly two hour interview was off-topic. BW quizzed Masterson about Boise's homeless, his disagreement with the Idaho Legislature over the guns-on-campus law and what he considers to be Boise's next big threat: designer drugs that have triggered some very scary behavior among the city's youth.

BW: Let's start with a bit of news. It's our understanding that you've been talking with your officers about a new drug threat.

Masterson: We're seeing far too many bizarre behaviors due to designer drugs, and kids are overdosing. Their core body temperatures are running so hot that they're shedding their clothes. We're finding them naked in the street and we found one walking naked in a local pancake house. Last week, we had a naked guy defecating in the road. We had a guy three months ago that had a pulse rate of 217 when we took him into custody.

BW: Who are we talking about?

Masterson: Young kids; high-school ages and some are 18 to 21.

BW: And what are these drugs called?

Masterson: One is called 25i and another is 25c. It's very reminiscent of when I was a young officer and we were dealing with angel dust.

BW: What can your department do about this?

Masterson: We certainly need to find out who's selling the drugs, but we have a bigger role in educating the public on what's going on. We're just now starting some strategy meetings with a cross-functional team: our detectives, drug investigators and school resource officers. Despite the fact that we gave big rhetoric to the so-called "war on drugs" years ago, the war hasn't ended.

When Masterson arrived in Boise in January 2005, he walked into a raging controversy. Just weeks earlier, 16-year-old Matthew Jones, armed with a World War II-era rifle and struggling with mental illness, was shot and killed when a Boise police officer fired four rounds at the boy. Eighteen months later, then-Ombudsman Pierce Murphy released a report saying that the officer appropriately fired his weapon when Jones charged him with the bayoneted rifle. But Murphy chastised the department for sloppy handling of evidence and the inappropriate display of Jones' weapon at a press conference. Murphy also strongly cautioned the department to rethink its crisis intervention training when dealing with individuals struggling with mental illness.

BW: Let's revisit January 2005. This department was in crisis.

Masterson: The incident happened just after I was offered the job, and I started a few weeks later.

BW: What's different in your department, culturally or procedurally, because of that incident?

Masterson: I didn't necessarily like some of the ombudsman's recommendations that came out from that investigation. But I strongly supported the one, lasting recommendation from Pierce Murphy: crisis intervention training. It opened our eyes to how much of our work deals with the mentally ill and people in crisis. That's the nature of our work. It's not really about crime anymore. It's how you deal with people in crisis.

BW: Which leads me to ask about George Nickel. Every time I see Nickel today, I can't help but think of how close he came to being killed that night when he faced Boise police with everyone's weapons drawn. [Nickel, a decorated veteran who survived a bombing in Iraq, struggled with post traumatic stress disorder and, in 2009, he 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 Veteran's Network].

Masterson: You have to put yourself in the shoes of those police officers that night. They arrived on the scene and saw a guy with body armor, extra magazines, a pistol and a rifle. Any combination of circumstances could have ended with multiple officers dead or George dead.

BW: So, if there was a 911 call tonight of a man with a gun at an apartment complex, would you handle that incident any differently?

Masterson: I don't think so. If we have a call from someone who says a suspect is shooting up an apartment complex, our police response is going to be the same. But George helped us understand that he was hearing a thousand voices in his head that night. We've learned that, in dealing with someone with PTSD, one person should do the talking and the rest should take cover.

BW: And that leads us to your department's current use of military gear, specifically a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle. Can you appreciate citizens' concerns when they see their city's police department has been militarized?

Masterson: I've thought about this a lot. Look, we're paramilitary. I wear a uniform. I'm the most visible and accessible form of government, and so are my 300 colleagues. What do you want as an option? Do you want us to be in plain clothes and driving unmarked vehicles with no identification? I think that's the very worst scenario we could have.

BW: But why in the world do you think it's necessary to use an MRAP?

Masterson: It certainly replaces an old white Chevy that used to protect our officers when they were inserted into a high-risk scene and they're trying to get citizens out of there.

BW: How many times has the department used the MRAP?

Masterson: Maybe half-a-dozen. When an individual in a downtown neighborhood had imprisoned his girlfriend's parents and he had bomb-making components, we brought in the MRAP between that house and another house for blast mitigation. [The incident occurred in November 2013].

BW: Are you saying that the amount of firepower that a suspect might have will trigger your use of the MRAP?

Masterson: That vehicle is going to protect officers and citizens. I don't see it as an offensive weapon.

BW: Do you think you've done a good enough job in explaining its use?

Masterson: I understand that it's a mystery to the public when they see an MRAP rolled out by another police department, but their criteria is not consistent with how we might use it in Boise, and thus the controversy.

BW: I want to make sure I heard you right. You're saying that it's worth the controversy, but you need to do a better job of explaining that your MRAP use is defensive.

Masterson: That's right.