Police ombudsman develops ordinance to hear complaints

Murphy to investigate 'critical incidents,' answer to citizens under new proposal

Idaho StatesmanJune 15, 2013 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article originally ran on June 30, 1999.

Boise's first police ombudsman will begin taking citizens' complaints in early October under the provisions of a proposed ordinance he unveiled Tuesday.

Pierce Murphy would be empowered to conduct investigations of "critical incidents," such as the string of fatal police-involved shootings that led to his appointment.

But the ombudsman's role in influencing police policies and training may be more important than probing any shootings, Murphy said.

"The policy recommendations - the input into the future of the department - is a critical part of an ombudsman," he said.

Murphy, a former Boise Cascade Corp. human resources officer, has been developing the ordinance since he began work April 5, in part by observing civilian review systems in other cities.

The proposal has the blessing of Mayor Brent Coles and will be the subject of a City Council public hearing July 13. The ordinance is scheduled for a third and final reading July 20.

"It's a very strong ordinance, and a very well-thought-out ordinance," Coles said.

Key provisions in what Murphy called a system of checks and balances include:

· The ombudsman would be empowered to investigate critical incidents, which include use of deadly force or force resulting in serious injury.

Murphy said he would probe all critical incidents. None has occurred for more than a year. They included the deaths of Officer Mark Stall and two brothers from Pennsylvania in a downtown shootout in 1997.

The ombudsman wouldn't have special subpoena power. Murphy said that power doesn't make sense for the ombudsman, since he wouldn't be holding a trial. But he said officers are required to cooperate as a condition of employment, or face discipline. And he said he could use the mayor's and council's subpoena power.

But the ombudsman would have full access to police information.

· The ombudsman would make independent findings of citizens' complaints, following "a timely, thorough, complete, objective and fair investigation."

Murphy said he plans to ask the council this summer for funding to hire an analyst-investigator. Some council members suggested he wait until he has been receiving complaints for several months.

Discipline of officers would be up to the police chief.

The ombudsman would file reports on complaints twice annually, analyzing trends.

Murphy said he would be able to disclose summaries of complaints, but privacy laws restrict disclosure of some information, including names of city employees.

· The ombudsman also would review police internal investigations and handle appeals of them by citizens.

· The ombudsman would develop a method of resolving disputes through mediation. Murphy said he will travel to Minneapolis to study that city's approach.

· The ombudsman may not be removed except for incompetence or other causes, and by a majority of the council upon the mayor's recommendation or by unanimous vote without the mayor's support.

Coles said the ordinance would provide the independence Murphy needs.

· The ombudsman would develop specific recommendations on police policies, procedures and training. The aim is to promote professionalism, safety, effectiveness and accountability, he said.

Murphy said accountability is a key word: The police will be held accountable by the ombudsman, and the ombudsman will be held accountable by the police and the community.

He said he receives about one complaint a week concerning the police, but can't act on them until his office is fully set up.

Murphy developed the ordinance after visiting police auditing systems in four California cities: San Jose, San Francisco, Berkeley and Richmond. He also interviewed national experts and talked to Boise citizens and police officers. Chief Larry Paulson said he had no problems with the ordinance.

Some council members questioned whether employees with law enforcement duties such as parking enforcers should come under the ordinance, as Murphy proposed.

But generally they were supportive.

"It looks to me as if this is really ready to roll," Council President Carolyn Terteling said.

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