In 2006, Pierce Murphy opened his investigative report on the death of Matthew Jones with a quote from poet T.S. Eliot:
"What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation."
Murphy explained that the teenager's death - from four bullets from a Boise police officer's gun as the boy's father watched - was as incomprehensible as it was tragic.
"A 16-year-old died, a family lost a son and a brother, and a police officer was faced with the agonizing decision to shoot someone in order to save his own life," Murphy wrote. "Except for the father and officer, no living person can fully comprehend the reality of what happened on that winter afternoon."
Most investigative reports are analytical, matter-of-fact and dry as dust. Empathy and highbrow poetry are not common.
Murphy's reports are no exception. After the prologue of that 2006 report, he returned to the emotionless, step-by-step style he used dozens of times before and after.
He exonerated Andrew Johnson, the officer who shot and killed Jones.
Bruce Jones, Matthew's father, disagreed with some of Murphy's conclusions. But he appreciated Murphy's touch.
"His tone and the thoughtfulness of the report were pretty remarkable. You don't see that very often," Jones said.
Like many in Boise, Jones was saddened, if not surprised, by news that Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn had nominated Murphy to leave his post as Boise's community ombudsman and take on the same role in Washington's biggest city.
As director of Seattle's Office of Professional Accountability, Murphy would investigate complaints against officers of the Seattle Police Department, which has entered into a settlement agreement with the U.S. Justice Department that requires an overhaul of supervision, training and reporting of uses of force.
Next week, Murphy said, the Public Safety Committee of Seattle's City Council will conduct a hearing on his nomination. The full council is scheduled to vote June 24 on whether to hire him.
CRISIS OF FAITH
If Murphy takes the job, it won't be his first experience with an unpopular police department. Murphy came to this city in 1999 following a rash of officer-involved shootings that caused an uproar against the Police Department.
Carolyn Terteling, who served on the City Council that confirmed Murphy's hiring, recalled turmoil throughout the city.
"It was shocking to everyone, including the police department. And it was one of those things where the citizens, people, were just very concerned. 'Have we got this huge crime rate? What exactly is causing this?' " Terteling said. "(The public) definitely lost faith in us. I don't know whether they felt that they were no longer safe."
A city law made Murphy responsible for investigating complaints against police and recommending, if necessary, officer sanctions and policy changes. At least 122 cities nationwide have agencies with civilian oversight of law enforcement, though their specific makeup and powers vary, according to the association for such organizations.
Fellow council member Mike Wetherell, now a judge in Boise, said the police department's tarnished image wasn't completely fair. He said the news media, particularly the Statesman, painted the time period during which the shootings occurred as normal for the department.
"I thought the coverage had been very unfair to the city in terms of picking your statistical period in a way in which you raise the highest possible level of alarm without looking at the long-term record of the Boise City Police Department," Wetherell said.
Wetherell acknowledged, however, that the perception of the department was unacceptable and the city needed to do something to address it.
Enter Community Ombudsman Pierce Murphy.
"In terms of the job that Pierce Murphy has done, from everything that I've been able to garner over the years that I worked with him and then from the coverage of what he's done since that time, he's probably one of the best hires that I was ever involved in," Wetherell said.
Murphy and former Police Chief Don Pierce, hired shortly after Murphy, are credited with helping rebuild public trust in the Boise Police Department. The number of complaints against officers declined consistently. Chief Pierce declined to comment for this story.
Wetherell said Murphy's independence was crucial to establishing credibility with the public and within the police department.
"He didn't have a problem either telling the police when he felt they had overstepped, and he didn't have a problem telling someone who was complaining that, 'Hey, they didn't do anything wrong.' And that's important," Wetherell said. "If an ombudsman gets the reputation for always being on the side of the police department or always being against the police department, clearly, they're not going to have credibility."
FUTURE OF THE JOB
So far, Mayor David Bieter has said nothing about what he intends to do with the community ombudsman position if Murphy leaves. He declined to comment for this story.
Terteling said the city should take the opportunity to review the position and, possibly, tweak it.
"If the position has been well used, and he's been busy, and he's done good work, and it's helped, then that position should be filled again," Terteling said. "On the other hand, if there's overlap, if things that he handled could have been handled, and maybe might have been handled, by (the police department's Office of) Internal Affairs, there's no reason to have two people doing the same thing."
The idea of expanding the ombudsman's role to investigate complaints outside the police department intrigues Terteling. That would require rewriting the ordinance that established the ombudsman's office, but it could pay dividends for handling complaints of harassment and other types of misconduct in all departments, she said.
Jones, who works as an attorney in Boise, worried that broader responsibilities would dilute the ombudsman's effectiveness.
"The ombudsman's office really does need to be focused on police issues," he said.
Wetherell and Murphy declined to comment on what the city should do if Murphy leaves. Current Police Chief Mike Masterson also declined to comment for this story.
Jones said the ombudsman should have power to compel testimony from civilians, as well as city employees, under penalty of perjury.
No matter what Jones thinks of the Boise community ombudsman, his respect for the man who defined the office is unique. Few people know Murphy as well or have as complex a relationship with him. Somehow, Jones has managed to look past his disagreement with Murphy's report on his son's death and see "a man of extraordinary honesty, competence, integrity."
Sven Berg: 377-6275
From the archives
The position of police ombudsman was completely new to Boise in the late '90s, but necessary to repair public opinion following a string of police shootings. Here, read more from the Statesman archives about the selection of Murphy - actually Boise's second ombudsman - and the 2004 shooting by police of 16-year-old Matthew Jones, which Murphy investigated.
Hiring the ombudsman:
The Matthew Jones shooting: