Our View: Vital ombudsman position in Boise needs clear-cut duties

July 17, 2013 

We applaud the work of Boise Community Ombudsman Pierce Murphy and are happy to hear Mayor Dave Bieter plans to replace him.

We are trying to get used to the idea, though, that a new ombudsman could scrutinize areas outside the Boise Police Department. There is the obvious concern that the dual focus might diminish effectiveness.

In 1999 the job was created to investigate the behavior of law enforcement officers. There were concerns that an ombudsman would be able to take weeks or months to examine decisions law enforcement had only a second to make; would he be fair? He has. Murphy's reviews have been thorough and thoughtful.

It is prudent for the mayor to think about the best way to fill unique vacancies such as the ombudsman, which Murphy left last week to begin a similar job with the Seattle Police Department. But some difficult questions need to be answered and analyzed before recasting the role.

Bieter believes Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson has effectively changed the culture of the department in a way that "makes the ombudsman less necessary." We don't question that; Masterson has brought imagination and open-mindedness to the job. But how much did Murphy contribute to the culture change? How important is it that department members knew their actions were going to be scrutinized by a full-time observer with Murphy's skill and judgment?

We don't believe Bieter or anyone else thinks we have seen the last of inappropriate actions by an officer. There has been a sharp decline in such incidents, but they haven't disappeared.

Earlier this month Murphy released a report that took the department to task for the "disrespectful and uncivil" behavior of a supervisor toward a suspect and a breakdown of the Boise Police Department's oversight process. Had Murphy not been engaged in routine audits of probes done by the department's Office of Internal Affairs, it never would have come to light.

Will Murphy's successor have enough time, freedom and autonomy to pore over this information while, perhaps, assisting in other human resources endeavors and investigations outside the police department?

We hope the new position and person will have a clear set of priorities and a job description that says police department oversight trumps everything else on the list of duties.

If the mayor and police department intend to proceed with expanded duties for the new ombudsman, the City Council should examine this approach for as long as it takes to get it right.

The more scrutiny and transparency built into the new arrangement, the better the chance for its continued success.

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