Boise's police ombudsman will begin to draw insight from his peers

Other mediators say Murphy needs support, resources

Idaho StatesmanJune 15, 2013 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article originally ran on April 4, 1999.

When Pierce Murphy begins work as Boise's first police ombudsman Monday, he will draw on the experience of counterparts in other cities.

Last week, as he was winding up his job as a Boise Cascade Corp. human resources manager, he said he will soon identify cities he will visit.

His goal: "To get a good idea of the pluses and minuses and what they wished they had done differently."

Boise's ombudsman is to investigate complaints about police conduct and make recommendations on policies and procedures. The office was established after a series of police-involved shootings that ended in September 1997.

Murphy can look at a wide variety of options as he develops the position. In San Jose, Calif., the independent police auditor monitors internal police investigations. In Rochester, N.Y., some complaints about police actions are handled by mediators who bring the parties together. In Cincinnati, non-police investigators probe allegations of misconduct.

Mark Gissiner of Cincinnati, president of the International Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, cautions that the rate at which complaints are sustained around the country by ombudsmen equals or is less than for internal police investigations.

But expectations can be higher for the "legislative" role of oversight agencies - advising on policies. "It normally works very well in the U.S.," said Gissiner, who applied for the Boise job.

Murphy temporarily will be ensconced in the mayor's office suite. In several months, he'll move into a separate office, also on the third floor of City Hall.

He intends to meet in coming weeks with youths at the two YMCA centers and with others.

He's already met with council members, Mayor Brent Coles and Police Chief Larry Paulson. "I wanted to introduce myself and really just listen - what do they hope for the job, their concerns, their ideas," he said.

In one sense, Murphy will be very much on his own.

"It's really a unique job," said Lisa Botsko, Portland, Ore.'s police auditor investigator. "No one can teach you how to do it."

Here's how police oversight is set up in some cities and suggestions from key figures in the programs:

CINCINNATI

How it works

The Office of Municipal Investigation investigates allegations of serious misconduct by any city employee, including police.

Citizens also can complain to the police internal affairs unit, which also investigates.

Investigators prepare a public report for the police and the city manager, who makes decisions on discipline.

A citizens review board for police actions has been created recently but is not yet operating.

"We have one of the most powerful and independent civilian oversight organizations in the nation - even before the review board," said Gissiner, who was the office's investigator for 10 years and is now a senior human resources analyst with the city.

Suggestions

Gissiner said it's critical that Murphy, who will have an office assistant and a $124,444 annual budget including his $65,000 salary, have the resources to investigate complaints. If he falls behind, "in essence he's going to be rubber stamping internal investigations," Gissiner said.

He suggested Murphy have a strategy in place for dealing with major incidents, including what access he will have to information about incidents .

The ombudsman should have a term of office to minimize the risk of police interference and "to protect him from political winds," he said.

Gissiner suggested Murphy develop an information resolution process on complaints.

ROCHESTER, N.Y.

How it works

Panels drawn from a group of civilian mediators review police internal affairs investigations and make recommendations to the police chief.

But if the incident is something that wouldn't constitute a crime - say an allegation of police discourtesy - a three-member panel from the Center for Dispute Settlement will mediate if both the citizen and the officer agree.

Suggestions

Anne Pokras, director of Monroe County Programs and Special Projects called for open communication and education about a mediation program.

"There really needs to be a buy-in from all the potential participants," she said. "If you try to work for change, it needs to be cooperative and collaborative."

PORTLAND, ORE.

How it works

Portland's system is a model for other oversight operations and was featured on National Public Radio.

A citizen's panel, called the Police Internal Investigations Auditing Committee, handles appeals of police internal affairs investigations.

In about six cases, a police internal affairs finding was altered after a challenge by the committee, said panel investigator Lisa Botsko.

The panel also can examine closed investigations that aren't appealed and may challenge the findings.

It also files regular reports on police procedures and policies. For example, following a committee recommendation, the police bureau created a new policy on handling complaints about lack of service, such as tracking progress on a car theft.

Suggestions

Unless the ombudsman has an investigative background, investigations are better done by the police, Botsko said.

It's crucial to have complete access to police internal investigations including audio tapes of interviews, she said. The ombudsman also needs the complaint histories of both officers and complainants, she said.

And the police department must have a good way of tracking complaints, so problems can be detected, Botsko said.

"It's important the ombudsman ¼ be free to say what needs to be said and let the chips fall where they may," she said.

Yet, she said Murphy must have the support of the mayor, council and police chief.

SAN JOSE, CALIF.

How it works

The Office of Independent Police Auditor reviews internal police investigations of complaints.

The office also passes on to police internal investigators the complaints it receives. It educates citizens on the complaint process.

And it makes recommendations on police policies and procedures, such as on the forcible taking of blood from an uncooperative suspect.

Suggestions

Boise's ombudsman should early on establish a right to information needed for him to do his job, and he should have a public-relations plan to reach out to the community, said Police Auditor Teresa Guerrero-Daley.

She said it doesn't make sense to set up a program that is totally adversarial.

And changing policy is a priority.

"Investigations are all-consuming," she said. "The most important thing is to identify what gives rise to the complaints and then change practices that allow that conduct to occur."

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