Civilian Oversight Boise Style — Coverage by the Spokesman-Review
Posted by Arroyoribera on August 5, 2007
ONGOING COVERAGE: POLICE CHIEF SEARCH
Among the largest cities in the Pacific Northwest, Spokane is the only one without direct citizen oversight of its police force.
Boise and Portland have oversight systems that allow citizens to complain about police conduct to someone other than the police.
In Seattle and Tacoma, civilians closely monitor how police process the complaints against themselves.
Spokane’s citizen oversight board has been inactive for months.
Law enforcement experts from around the nation consider Boise’s system a model of citizen involvement.
The issue of police oversight became a hot topic in the Idaho capital in the late 1990s after a series of officer-involved shootings. The last shooting in 1997 left three people dead, including the first Boise police officer killed in the line of duty.While there were no racial overtones to any of the Boise shootings, “the community had lots of questions,” said Pierce Murphy, who became the first “community ombudsman,” a position he still holds.
Initially, the city considered creating a police commission to provide oversight, but the Boise City Council eventually established the ombudsman position instead.
Today, Murphy and two assistants work out of Boise City Hall with a $281,000 annual budget.
Murphy is responsible for investigating complaints about the city’s 300 law enforcement officers, including those assigned to the airport, and code and parking enforcement divisions. The ombudsman also investigates any use of “deadly force” by officers, including high-speed pursuits, and audits all internal affairs investigations, which are still conducted by the police department. The results are made public.
In a current case, Murphy is investigating an incident in which a suspect stabbed himself with a pair of scissors while taking a polygraph test administered by a detective.
Is the system working?
“It depends on how you define ‘working,’ ” said Murphy. “If it’s, ‘Has this helped the community to have greater trust in its law enforcement agencies and the oversight mechanism in place?’ – then the answer is ‘yes.’ ” The ombudsman “is very independent from the police” and “essentially works for the City Council,” Murphy said. Council members are prohibited by law from attempting to influence the ombudsman, who can only be removed for cause at a public hearing.
“I think we issue more reports with more details than any oversight agency in the United States,” Murphy said. “I think it’s important for us to communicate with the community and release the results of what we’re finding.
“A value we bring is the ability to make policy or training changes in the police department.”
Civilian oversight frequently doesn’t become a local issue until a controversial incident occurs. Such was the case in Tacoma, where the community clamored for citizen involvement after the city’s police chief took his own life after killing his wife in a domestic dispute in 2003.
Now, a five-member citizen committee is being appointed, and citizens can use a computerized system to track complaints against any city employee, including police. Despite the momentum, the Tacoma officers’ union is resisting a plan for an independent auditor to attend interviews by the department’s internal affairs division.
In Seattle, complaints against police are investigated by the Office of Professional Accountability, which has a civilian director who reports to the police chief. Investigations are conducted by police assigned to the unit.
An auditor and a three-member civilian review board are supposed to oversee the work, but the board hasn’t issued a report in three years because of concerns about legal liability and censored reports. One pending report is on police use of Tasers, an increasingly controversial topic.
In an effort to resolve the impasse, the Seattle City Council on May 30 voted unanimously to allow the review board access to uncensored files. The council also voted to protect review board members from lawsuits, but details still must be negotiated during forthcoming police labor negotiations.
In Portland, there has been some form of civilian oversight of police for 24 years.
In 2001, a new law established a nine-member Citizen Review Committee, which monitors the Independent Police Review Division. The division has nine employees working under the elected city auditor. The full-time civilian staff investigates and tracks citizen complaints and audits internal affairs investigations done by the police bureau. The division recently hired a private consultant to periodically analyze and critique all officer-involved shootings. The Citizen Review Committee, composed of volunteers, hears appeals.
Also in the Spokesman-Review
Boise will host the 12th annual conference of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) in September 2006. The nonprofit group’s mission is to “promote fair, firm and consistent law enforcement in the United States through the practice of civilian oversight.”