Report offers thoughtful recommendations; commentary

Ombudsman clears way for community to heal, move forward from Matthew Jones tragedy

Idaho StatesmanJune 15, 2013 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column originally ran on July 13, 2006.

Finally, we have the answers. Now, we can move on, heal and learn.

Ombudsman Pierce Murphy's report on the death of 16-year-old Matthew Jones at the hands of Boise Police Officer Andrew S. Johnson is the best piece of public writing I've read in years.

Even-handed, thorough and gripping, Murphy finds that Johnson appropriately fired four shots after Jones charged him with a bayonetted rifle at dusk on Dec. 18, 2004.

But Murphy also says Johnson should have been more cautious in approaching Jones. Nine seconds after Johnson arrived, the boy was shot dead.

Murphy's authoritative report concludes with thoughtful recommendations for training, evidence handling and creating a mobile crisis intervention team to deal with disturbed and mentally ill people.

In sum, Murphy succeeds where a slanted and clumsy coroner's inquest failed. And Murphy satisfied my curiosity about what took him so long. Just last week, Murphy received the last document he included in the report.

He engaged experts far more effective than those employed for the inquest. They found Johnson did not erase an audio recording of the shooting. They made a precise estimate -- 19 feet -- of the distance between Johnson and Jones when the first shots were fired.

Murphy's consultants discredited the method used for the inquest to calculate firing distance. Murphy also concludes that sloppy handling by police, including display of the rifle and Johnson's gear at a press conference, spoiled the value of critical evidence.

Murphy suggests police undermined their credibility as impartial investigators of Jones' death. He said they should stop exempting officers from recorded interviews at critical incidents, while requiring witnesses to be recorded.

Another example of bias: The task force led by the Meridian Police Department that investigated the shooting tried to influence a witness by describing Jones as having charged Johnson, having struck him with the bayonet and having forced his family to flee in fear.

Underlying Murphy's report is his aspiration that police set the highest standards. They don't need to spin events; if they're straightforward, people will respond with trust.

Murphy empathizes with officers doing vital and demanding jobs, but called for what amounts to a culture change. Officers told Murphy they were concerned that on the night of Dec. 18, 2004, Johnson did not wait for an assisting officer. But none of them told Johnson that. "Officers may be reluctant to ask for help," Murphy wrote, "thinking, perhaps, that doing so might be perceived as a lack of competence or confidence."

Power to take a life is the most grave authority we grant our government. Murphy's report should ease concerns that police acted recklessly, and it offers ideas for improvement.

Police Chief Mike Masterson disagreed with several of Murphy's findings and took "special exception" to the suggestion that officers used an overbroad search warrant of the Jones home to "accomplish collateral objectives," including shielding themselves from civil liability.

Masterson, naturally, is defending his officers, but he's genuine about wanting them to get better. He sat through the four-day inquest and, showing real class, attended a forum on troubled teens organized by the Jones family in May.

He apologized for the perception by the Jones family that police and prosecutors were their adversaries. "I don't believe it was an intentional act but rather a conditioned response by a profession accustomed to dealing with hardened criminals," Masterson wrote to the mayor and City Council.

Masterson rejects the notion officers should be recorded, saying he knows of no other departments that have such a policy and that officers' rights could be compromised. He also responded cautiously on training and a new crisis team.

Masterson had five days to prepare his response. Though his memo sounds lukewarm about the crisis team, he told me he needs time for study. And, he notes, resources are scarce. Boise police have fewer officers relative to population than the cities Murphy cites as having success with the teams: Memphis, Seattle, Portland and Salt Lake City.

Boise may lack the social-service network to support a mobile team to respond to mental health emergencies. We still don't have a detox center, something Masterson relied on 30 years ago as a rookie cop in Madison, Wis. "I'm not throwing stones, but take a look at what we're doing with people who are incapacitated by drugs and alcohol and need help. Take a look at what we do for the mentally ill."

Absolutely right: Idaho is famously stingy with social services. Even though it would save money and lives, lawmakers have resisted stepping up drug treatment.

But a crisis team doesn't require an expensive facility, Murphy said. Officers would be trained to recognize mental problems and learn alternatives to de-escalate violence.

Murphy, who studied to be a priest as a young man, has proven his mettle since becoming Boise's first ombudsman in 1999. That year, he urged establishing a crisis team. The idea was dropped.

Would that his advice have been taken. Now, it's up to Masterson, Mayor Dave Bieter, the City Council, the Legislature and leaders across the state to make sure the ball doesn't get dropped again.

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