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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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'A Different Style of Policing'

Boise's ombudsman position was the product of a growing desire for community oversight of what was increasingly being seen as a police force spinning out of control. In the mid-1990s, several longtime Boise police officers retired and were replaced by officers with law enforcement experience in major metropolitan areas along the West Coast, including Seattle; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; and Los Angeles. According to Murphy, they brought a "different style of policing to Boise," one that was more aggressive and force oriented, resulting in a culture shift within the BPD.

Tactics used by this new batch of police officers gave the department a reputation among the public and the media for being trigger happy: In the 23-months leading up to the 1999 creation of the Office of the Community Ombudsman, Boise police were involved in seven shootings, including the Sept. 1997 shooting that led to Boise Police Officer Mark Stall being killed in the line of duty. During that 23-month period, several people who were shot by police were unarmed at the time.

"Boise had gone from having one [shooting] once every five years or so and not a history of fatalities, to this cluster in that time period," Murphy said. "There was significant community conversation and angst."

At first, the ombudsman's office consisted of Murphy and a secretary. Another full-time investigator was added in 2000. In 2003, the staff grew to include a deputy ombudsman and a part-time investigator. Murphy said in his 14 years as ombudsman, he saw a downward trend in the number of police-involved shootings and complaints lodged against the BPD through his office. In 1999, the ombudsman's annual report to Boise City Council showed that Murphy's office handled 45 allegations and inquiries regarding the BPD, including 10 alleged instances of use of force. In 2005, he logged 210 commendations, complaints and inquiries, as well as eight critical incidents in which officers or suspects were injured or force was used in a police interaction (those included three shootings and one incident involving a Taser stun gun). In 2010, there were 29 use-of-force allegations made against the BPD—only one was sustained.

In 2012, when Murphy presented his last annual report to the Boise City Council, his office handled 13 complaints and four critical incidents. He credited two new police chiefs—Don Pierce (2000-04) and Mike Masterson (2004-15)—with transforming the BPD by recruiting people without prior background in law enforcement and expanding the department's diversity.

"Masterson made a lot of changes to both the training of new officers to be more in line with the concept of police as a public service, and to reflect the values of the needs of the community," Murphy said.

Personnel changes and a shift in philosophy didn't immunize BPD against controversy or conflict with the ombudsman, however. In December 2004, a Boise police officer shot and killed 16-year-old Matthew Jones when Jones advanced on the officer with a bayonet-equipped Japanese WWII-era rifle. The shooting was widely reported in the media, raising questions about how the incident had been handled. In a 60-page report issued in July 2006, Murphy took issue with how evidence was collected and handled in the post-incident investigation, implying that some evidence had been collected "in order to defend the officer's actions either in the public eye or in the event of a third-party investigation." Then-BPD Chief Masterson fired back against the implication that members of his department and CITF investigators may have behaved unethically or unprofessionally.

"This is unwarranted speculation on the part of the ombudsman. There is simply no evidence to support his personal conjecture and I question his reasons for resorting to such speculation," Masterson wrote in a response issued to the Boise City Council.

The Jones Report is an anomaly in the mostly collegial relationship between the ombudsman's office and the BPD. Of the hundreds of reports investigated by Murphy over the years, comparatively few of the allegations were sustained against BPD officers. Between 1999 when the ombudsman's office was created and the release of its 2010 annual report, there were 905 allegations leveled against Boise law enforcement officers ranging from abuse of authority to unnecessary use of force to rudeness. Murphy reported that 741 of those allegations were unfounded or not sustained, while 130 of them yielded evidence of fault on the part of the officer.

The Jones Report further serves as an example of the many hats an ombudsman must wear to perform the job effectively. It contains detailed analyses of crime scene evidence, radio logs, witness statements, forensic data and legal arguments. Murphy and his team logged hundreds of hours compiling, collating and examining piles of information. As significant as critical incidents are, Murphy said the ombudsman is most effective when the staff can conduct investigations, like those into Jones' death, while being able to perform the other duties of the office.

"I think they need to find a replacement for me. Dunne is just a placeholder. The urgency I have is that as good a job as Dennis has done, he doesn't have the time to focus on building up the capability of the office or engage in ongoing education or training for himself, working on prospective policy work, community relations. All that is laying fallow, going on 20 months," Murphy said.

Baker told BW she felt that urgency among some executive-level City Hall employees, too, and hoped that Bieter shared their commitment to civilian oversight of the police.

"I think there are people on the executive staff who are very committed to this position. For other people, it's not a priority whatsoever," she said. "I looked the mayor in the eye and I asked him, and he assured me it was an important position."