What does Boise need in an ombudsman?

Role could expand beyond just the city’s police department

Idaho StatesmanJuly 15, 2013 

— When he took office in 2004, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter had an unusual message for Community Ombudsman Pierce Murphy.

“I told Pierce, ‘My goal is to make you obsolete. To make you unnecessary,’” Bieter said. “We’d say, ‘We want you to be the Maytag repairman of ombudsmen in that there’s so little to do.’”

Not many — not Bieter, Murphy nor the Boise Police Department Murphy kept watch on for the past 14 years — would say the ombudsman position is obsolete now. In fact, Bieter said, the city hopes to hire a new ombudsman in the next couple of months.

But complaints against Boise police officers that members of the public bring to the ombudsman’s office have fallen dramatically since the City Council created the office in 1999.

“That’s really what I’m most pleased about, and that’s a tribute to Chief (Mike) Masterson and the department, because the culture has changed in a way that makes the ombudsman less necessary,” Bieter said.

Bieter said the city should at least consider expanding the ombudsman’s role beyond investigations of law enforcement officers’ behavior. In the future, the office could help handle the human resources department’s workload, such as workplace complaints, sexual harassment investigations, federal and state employment law compliance, employee grievances and employee policy writing and review.

For example, the ombudsman might look into an employee’s claim of harassment against a supervisor and make recommendations to human resources or the mayor’s office and City Council.

Bieter’s confident the legal tweaks such a shift would require won’t be too much of an obstacle.

On Wednesday, a day after his last day on the job in Boise, Murphy said there’s good and bad in Bieter’s proposal. The good is that the ombudsman’s resources would be a powerful asset for the human resources department. The bad is that extending the ombudsman’s reach could dilute the position’s focus on law enforcement. Bruce Jones, whose son was killed by a Boise officer in 2004, brought up the same concern.

Rather than spread the ombudsman’s office around, Jones would increase its power. He suggested giving the ombudsman the power to compel testimony from civilians, a group who today is not obligated to cooperate.

“He and I will have to agree to disagree on that,” Murphy said. “I have not run into a time when I needed to get the testimony of a non-city employee in order to complete a thorough investigation. Could it happen? Sometimes.” Mike Masterson, who’s been Boise police chief since 2005, suggested a minor tweak to the ombudsman’s policy. The department should have more time to review ombudsman reports before they’re released to the public. Masterson said a week or so would be enough time to develop a department response — in agreement or disagreement — to the reports and detail steps police would take to address ombudsman recommendations.

Murphy’s next challenge

Pierce Murphy has been the Boise community ombudsman since April 5, 1999. The father of eight has already taken over the same role — investigating complaints of police actions — in Seattle. On Tuesday, the Boise City Council named Dennis Dunne, Murphy’s senior investigator, interim director of the ombudsman’s office.

The Seattle Police Department has entered a settlement agreement with the U.S. Justice Department that requires an overhaul of supervision, training and reporting of uses of force.

About a year ago, Murphy said, the Justice Department announced it had cause to believe that some 20 percent of Seattle police officers’ uses of force were unconstitutional over several years.

Audio

Listen to Pierce Murphy speak on:

His experience as ombudsman

His early reception at BPD

One of his most difficult cases

The changing culture of BPD (clip 1) (clip 2)

The most difficult parts of being ombudsman (clip 1) (clip 2)

Police Chief Mike Masterson

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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