The Boise Office of the Community Ombudsman is no more—at least in name. The Boise City Council voted unanimously July 7 to rename the unit the Office of Police Oversight, now a part-time permanent position.
For city leaders, the new title reflects a yearslong project of "cleaning up" Boise City Code. Hoever, some worry that without a permanent civilian police overseer in place, important functions such as fielding community complaints against police, conducting investigations into critical use-of-force incidents and generating police policy recommendations could be diminished.
"I've expressed concerns with the fact that this is an incredibly important position that serves the community, and it's still incredible that after two years we haven't placed someone permanently," said ACLU-Idaho Interim Executive Director Leo Morales. "It's important for the city to move as fast as possible to make sure we have someone permanent there."
Since spring, six candidates have been in the running for the now part-time position, and City Hall has given no hints as to when it might announce its decision on a permanent replacement for former full-time Ombudsman Pierce Murphy, who left the job in 2013 for a similar position in Seattle.
According to Mike Journee, spokesman for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, the city Human Resources Department has been taking a deliberate approach to "find the right person." A staffer from Office of Police Oversight is currently filling the job.
"Interviews are and have happened, and everyone is very pleased with that process in the pool, and we're hopeful that things will move quickly," Journee said.
The ombudsman position was originally created amid a spate of police shootings. During a 23-month period leading up to Murphy taking the ombudsman's job in 1999, several high-profile police shootings left both civilians and Boise Police Officer Mark Stall dead.
Murphy's relationship with the Boise Police Department was sometimes rocky, notably following his July 2006 report on the officer-involved shooting death of Matthew Jones.
In his response to Murphy's investigation, then-Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson pushed back against implications that members of his department may have behaved unethically or unprofessionally during their inquiry.
"This is unwarranted speculation on the part of the ombudsman," Masterson then wrote to the Boise City Council. "There is simply no evidence to support his personal conjecture and I question his reasons for resorting to such speculation."
After Murphy left the office in July 2013, Dennis Dunne, who was an investigator under Murphy, oversaw the department on a part-time, interim basis until earlier this year. Meanwhile, there has been a reduction in the number of complaints and critical incidents.
In 2013 and 2014, the ombudsman's office investigated 113 complaints—a low number for a two-year period since the office was established. Bieter's office took note and, earlier this year, announced Dunne's replacement would work part-time. According to Boise City Council President Maryanne Jordan, that reduction is in keeping with the job's reduced workload, rather than a reduced need.
"Any other position in the city that has less than half the workload it had 10 years ago would be analyzed for efficiencies," Jordan said.
Murphy, reached at his office in Seattle, was skeptical of the logic behind reducing the hours of the job because the number of complaints is down, given the other time-consuming activities required of that job. The police overseer will perform policy reviews and audit internal affairs investigations as time permits.
"The role of that position was always more than just handling complaints," Murphy said. "I think the great value is having someone that is auditing all of the internal affairs investigations, launching policy reviews. It was not conceived only as a reactive complaint-taker position."
During his tenure, Murphy engaged the community through speaking appearances and considered public outreach integral to the success of the position. Jordan said that changing the job title to police overseer "clarifies the definition of the office," but in February, Dunne told Boise Weekly he had performed less public outreach than his predecessor since becoming the interim ombudsman.
"That's one of the things that's lacking having the interim, because the community outreach that Pierce [Murphy] was doing has not been done since he left in terms of his public speaking to community groups," Dunne said.