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Mike Masterson: The Exit Interview

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

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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.

In 2013, Masterson proposed a specially designated tailgating zone in Julia Davis Park, allowing Boise State University football fans to drink alcohol in the public park from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. The one-year pilot program was considered a success and was made permanent at the beginning of this year's football season.

BW: I'm presuming that you were pleased with the 10-to-10 zone on game days.

Masterson: We were handing out far too many citations for open-container misdemeanors to citizens who didn't deserve them. I asked, "Why not regulate the area instead of regulating the behavior?"

BW: In regards to those hours always being 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., some have asked for flexibility in those hours, especially considering the increased number of night games.

Masterson: We're not going to extend the hours. The neighborhood needs to go to sleep. If you want to tailgate, come before the game. We ended up cutting down arrests by about two-thirds in the first year. And Boise State continues to provide the funding for us to staff security.

BW: And that brings us to guns-on-campus, specifically at Boise State. Now that it's law, how are your department's procedures any different regarding the report of a gun in a classroom?

Masterson: They're not. If we get a call from someone who says he or she can see a gun, we're going to talk to that individual with the gun, and it will not be our presumption that they have a license to carry that gun at Boise State.

BW: But isn't that an extremely uncomfortable conversation to have with that individual?

Masterson: It comes down to isolating that individual, making sure they're not a threat to anyone else; and then making sure they're authorized to carry.

BW: I need to take you back to this past February when you waited to testify before the Idaho Senate State Affairs Committee, but public testimony was cut off. And more than a few of us were stunned to see that you ended up speaking up on the issue, but at St. Michael's Episcopal Cathedral a week later.

Masterson: When you're denied the opportunity to talk in the people's house, you take the conversation elsewhere.

BW: Are you any more nervous because guns-on-campus allows more guns at Boise State?

Masterson: Look, this was never a concealed-carry permit issue. This was always about the National Rifle Association and politicians looking to get the NRA's backing in an election year. Call it what it is. I had some legislators, even Republicans, come up to me and apologize for this. It shouldn't be a partisan issue, but now it's water over the dam.

In May 2013, Masterson sat alongside city attorneys when they proposed a package of ordinances to combat what he called "increased harassing or panhandling that have a negative impact on the city's use of public space." The proposals were met with approval from the Boise City Council but were ultimately challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, arguing that the city was "criminalizing homelessness." Since then, BW has chronicled how the city has refined its so-called "anti-camping" ordinance and Boise police began handing out more warnings and citations to homeless individuals whose numbers grew this past summer along Americana Boulevard, just blocks from crowded shelters

BW: On any given day in downtown Boise, there are fewer panhandlers than your fingers and toes. Yet, there is a lot of energy coming from City Hall and your department to crack down on these people.

Masterson: I want to prohibit certain behaviors that citizens, other than you, say make them uncomfortable. And they've been complaining to us.

BW: But the number of complaints really can't be significant. Should that be driving policy?

Masterson: Citizens are being asked for money; and when they say "No," the confrontation with the panhandler isn't over. And you've seen these people. They're organized and it's almost like a racket. There are some people who feign disability in wheelchairs, but then they walk back to their cars and drive home. I really think the city's "Have a Heart, Give Smart" program [which urges citizens to give to recognized charities instead of directly to the homeless] is great.

BW: With due respect, doesn't that campaign talk down to citizens, presuming that they don't truly know where their money is going when they hand a dollar to an individual? Can't you acknowledge that some of us simply feel a little better when we put a dollar in someone's hand?

Masterson: You and I are opposites on this, because I'll turn around and give $500 to the Rescue Mission. And when I was walking downtown a week ago, I was accosted twice and I said "No" twice. And I felt good about that.

BW: We're going to agree to disagree on this, but to be clear: are you saying that panhandling in Boise is a significant issue, or is it the public's perception that it's a significant issue?

Masterson: It's public perception.

BW: How about Boise's overall problem of homelessness?

Masterson: My officers say they're seeing new faces on the streets all the time. What's really disheartening is that there are some other communities who practice what we used to call "Greyhound therapy."

BW: You're talking about some cities handing bus tickets to the homeless to get them out of town.

Masterson: My officers see Boise as a generous community where citizens give a lot of stuff to the homeless, yet we don't provide any place for the homeless to store all of that stuff in the daytime. We noticed pretty early this summer that there was a lack of restroom facilities along Americana as the numbers of homeless grew. And our police officers were the ones to get more restrooms out there, long before the media got into the story. Our patrol and bicycle officers know many of the homeless by name. And if you ask them, I think a good number of the homeless will tell you that there's respect and dignity coming from our department.

Through the course of our conversation, BW talked to Masterson about several other issues such as body cams (he thinks the department will have them within a couple of years), the racially-charged controversy in Ferguson, Mo. (NBC News called him for a comment but he avoided weighing in) and his proposed decentralization of police services by introducing more police precincts into Boise neighborhoods (he said it's still on the table). But when we asked Masterson about what he wants to accomplish in his final weeks, he brought up an intriguing initiative:

Masterson: The criminal justice system is antiquated in Idaho when it comes to crime and punishment--especially when we hand out misdemeanors to kids who have been consuming alcohol.

BW: Do you have a sense of how many open container citations you hand out?

Masterson: About 1,000 tickets a year. What really ticks me off is the penalty. If you steal someone's property, that is absolutely a crime. But not everything needs to be a crime. We're seeing young people lose internships and scholarships because they're convicted of a misdemeanor for drinking.

BW: Don't you think it will be a tough sell, particularly in certain sections of Idaho, to be more lenient on alcohol-related violations?

Masterson: Look, we can talk tough. But is that what you really want for your son or daughter? You know, things are a little different in some rural sections of Idaho where the local sheriff just calls the parents if the kids are caught drinking. But when those same kids come down to the Treasure Valley and they're attending Boise State and they're caught with an open container, they could become a criminal. Do you want that? I want to see that fixed.

BW: But where do you start with something like that? You have to work through a pretty big system and, ultimately, the Legislature.

Masterson: We're starting with other police chiefs and a panel of judges, prosecutors and defenders. You build a coalition. How about making a first-time possession of alcohol a fine, and the second or third a crime? I don't have any sympathy if you're caught twice. In a lot of other cities around the country, an open container violation is a civil forfeiture. You pay a fine and you move on with no criminal record. But here, it's a criminal offense. If I could make some progress on that, I'll be happy.

BW: Finally, in your decades of being a policeman, both here in Boise and in Madison, Wisc., did you ever have to fire your weapon?

Masterson: Other than training, I've never fired my gun.

BW: You've been a cop for 38 years. Can you really walk away so easily?

Masterson: It's time for someone else to bring the department to another level.