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Who Watches the Watchmen?

Advocates want Boise's Office of the Community Ombudsman position filled sooner rather than later, but Mayor Dave Bieter is in no hurry

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'Losing that Independent Voice'

The city is considering reducing the ombudsman's position at a time when communities elsewhere are strengthening civilian oversight of the police. The role played by community ombudsmen—and the larger conversation about law enforcement oversight—has been center stage during the past year, after high-profile incidents like the police-involved deaths of 43-year-old Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY, and 19-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. According to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, there are more than 200 such entities, including ombuds and citizen review boards, in the United States. Between two and five are established every year, many of them in small and medium-size cities like Boise, while larger cities have longer histories with these organizations. New York City has the largest, with more than 100 staff members investigating civilian complaints, commendations and incidents involving officer-related use of force. Los Angeles has an ombudsman's staff of about 30. Some cities get their oversight from offices like Boise's, others use panels, working groups or commissions.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to civilian oversight, as every community has different needs and resources. Ferguson, Mo., is in the process of establishing a citizen review board in the wake of race demonstrations following the shooting death of Michael Brown, a black suspect shot and killed by a white police officer in August 2014. Some communities have prosecutorial oversight, in which district attorneys or other non-civilian individuals or agencies watchdog the police. But according to NACOLE President Brian Buchner, civilians are uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between the police and the communities they serve.

"I think there's something special about civilian oversight, but we recognize that's not the only way a police department might become more accountable. Any effort that doesn't include civilian oversight is missing out on a critical link to the community," Buchner said.

There are few ways to measure the effectiveness of civilian oversight. In part, because the public's faith in law enforcement is difficult to quantify. Another hurdle is the many ways in which hard data can be read. Commonly used metrics like the number of civilian complaints against a police department may reflect the public's faith that its concerns will be addressed, rather than lack of faith in law enforcement itself. Buckner said that policy recommendations and community outreach improve police outcomes and higher public trust, but the ultimate value of consistent oversight of police is the way they spur law enforcement to respond to community problems proactively, identifying and addressing systemic issues before them become chronic and difficult to correct. Reducing public oversight, even at a time when there are few complaints made against police, is more complicated than shrinking a job due to a smaller workload: It's relaxing pressure on police departments to address community concerns.

"Oversight plays a general role in providing independent perspective. To limit or downsize an office—there's the serious risk of losing that independent voice," Buchner said.

For Reno News & Review Editor Brian Burghart, who collects nationwide reports of police-involved shootings on his website, fatalencounters.org, the effects of shrinking civilian oversight are tangible. Reducing the capacity of an ombudsman "decreases the ability to do the job when there's a crisis."

"That's exactly the opposite of what you want," Burghart said. "That's why you have downtime sometimes, so you're staffed for crisis,"

Watching the Watchers

There are a number of reasons why city and police leadership in Boise may have a hot-and-cold relationship with civilian oversight, but a historical source of tension has been the multi-agency Critical Incident Task Force, which was most recently activated after the Feb. 16 shooting of Michael Casper.

The problem, according to Burghart, is that task forces like CITF aren't oversight so much as cops overseeing other cops. According to Burghart, police departments sometimes push back against ombudsman offices because they don't like "somebody who's not their boss looking over their shoulder."

"Their friends investigate them, and the case goes to the district attorney, who's really just the top cop," he said.

While police investigations into officer-involved shootings are kept local, so are reports of such shootings in the media. Since events in Ferguson, Mo. increased media attention has been given to instances of police-involved violence, but Burghart said such incidents are so common that they nearly always remain unreported at the national level. Based on his research, he estimates that if the Associated Press ran a story about every officer-involved homicide, there would be three of them every day, and that "probably 600 people have been killed since Mike Brown."

"Our nation has had its consciousness raised on this topic, and it's still not news. It is so common that it's not a national story," he said.

Burghart's crusade began in May 2012, when, on his way home from work, he saw a group of police cars near the Truckee River in Reno, Nev. When he got home, he flipped open his laptop and started investigating. The police had pulled over a stolen car and shot and killed the driver, Jace Herndon, 41. After looking at news reports of the incident, he realized that none of them had information about how many police killings had taken place over a year in Nevada's Washoe County.

After more digging, Burghart learned there was no single database of all police-related shootings nationwide, let alone one with the data broken down by state, county or city. The news and reports are out there—"I'm no conspiracy theorist," he said—but nobody's collecting that information, which is why he started the Fatal Encounters database, which now has more than 4,500 recorded entries of citizens who have been killed or wounded by police nationwide. Burghart said that's a fraction of the real number of police-involved shootings.

In part, he said, there's little market for stories about police-involved shootings in the United States. In Boise, however, it was increased public attention given to police-involved homicides that paved the way for civilian oversight.