Natalie Camacho Mendoza said she didn’t go to the scene where a Boise police officer shot a man on Oct. 26 because she didn’t want to interfere with officers who were investigating.
It was Camacho Mendoza’s first experience with an officer-involved shooting since she took over as the city’s Director of Police Oversight in August. In her three-plus months on the job, she said, she hasn’t been to a scene where officers are investigating an incident. She said the three part-time, on-call investigators who work for her have.
“I think we need to be very conscientious of the role of having law enforcement do what law enforcement does and make sure we’re not crossing lines into their crime scenes, etc.,” Camacho Mendoza said. “I want to make sure that those lines are drawn, that we’re observing what they do, but we also don’t want to get in the way of them doing their job.”
That’s not good enough, local attorney Bruce Jones said. On Dec. 18, 2004, Jones watched a Boise police officer shoot his son four times in front of the family’s house. The boy, who was holding a rifle with a bayonet attached, died.
Boise Community Ombudsman Pierce Murphy, Camacho Mendoza’s predecessor, exonerated the officer in the shooting. Even though he disagreed with some of the ombudsman’s conclusions, Jones became a steadfast supporter of Murphy’s.
Jones said he was surprised Camacho Mendoza didn’t visit the location of the Oct. 26 incident. Being there doesn’t mean she’s contaminating evidence or interfering with officers, he said.
“It is invaluable to be on the scene. It’s the primary source. There’s no substitute for actually seeing something rather than trying to re-create it later through photos or diagrams,” Jones said. “It’s evident that there needs to be independent review of the actions, and it should start at the scene so that there can be no manipulation from the moment of the incident to whenever the ombudsman gets involved.”
Murphy said he went to the scene of every officer-involved shooting when he was ombudsman, though Boise law doesn’t require police oversight officials to go to the scene of critical incidents, which include events in which officers kill or seriously harm someone.
Camacho Mendoza said her stance on visiting the scene of a shooting or other incident isn’t set in stone.
“If evidence comes to me where I question whether that is effective and we need to be there, then that might change,” she said. “But at this point in time, like I said, I really want to make sure that I define those parameters of what we do versus what law enforcement does.”
Camacho Mendoza has big shoes to fill.
Murphy was Boise’s first ombudsman. In his 14 years here, he was widely respected for his fairness and empathy when investigating civilian complaints of police conduct. He is credited with helping restore public faith in the Boise Police Department and city government in general after a rash of police shootings.
After Murphy left in 2013 for a similar job in Seattle, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter’s office launched a nationwide search for a replacement. That search failed to net a candidate that Bieter was satisfied with, so he started over.
Bieter, with the backing of the City Council, then changed the ombudsman job from a full-time to a part-time position. He also renamed it the Office of Police Oversight.
“Ombudsman was a clunky title from the start, let alone the gender neutrality of it is hard,” Bieter said at the council’s July 27 meeting, when Camacho Mendoza was confirmed. “Ombudsperson? Do you say that? Thankfully, director of the office of police oversight, I think, is quite a bit easier.”
A native of Pocatello, Camacho Mendoza earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from Idaho State University. She graduated in 1989 from the Washburn School of Law in Topeka, Kan., and moved to Boise in 1995.
She rose to partner at Boise law firm Anderson Julian and Hull before starting her own firm, Camacho Mendoza Law. She has also worked as prosecutor for the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation.
She said her legal experience has prepared her for the investigative aspect of being Boise’s director of police oversight.
“I am an attorney, and every case that comes across your desk, you need to do investigating, partially just to determine whether you’re going to take the case,” she said. “But then, once you do, obviously you prepare a case by collecting all the facts.”
She’s familiar with the way judges assemble objective facts and use them to form an opinion; now she’s on the other side of that process. She said she plans to attend seminars and other training events to sharpen her skills.
‘A SERVICE FOR EVERYONE’
Camacho Mendoza’s resume boasts a long list of service for civil rights groups.
In the 1990s, Gov. Cecil Andrus appointed her to the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, a group whose goal was to address issues such as Latinos’ access to education and employment, as well as relationships between Latinos and government agencies. She said she served as vice-chair of the Pocatello Human Relations Advisory Committee, a post that required her to look into claims of discrimination.
Camacho Mendoza said she’ll lean on that background in her new role.
“I just am conscientious about the fact that there may be certain segments of our community that might be a little bit more hesitant to reach out on their own,” she said. “As an immigrant, depending on what your experience has been with government in the place where you come from, there may be hesitancy. And I just want to make sure that the message gets to all segments of Boise that there isn’t a need for that, that this is a service for everyone.”
But how much outreach can Camacho Mendoza realistically accomplish as a 20-hour-per-week employee who’s running her own law firm at the same time?
Murphy made it a big part of the job. Dennis Dunne, who works as an on-call investigator for Camacho Mendoza, said in February that he didn’t have time to fill that role when he stepped in as interim ombudsman in Murphy’s absence.
Camacho Mendoza said connecting with the community is a priority for her. She said she recently participated in a networking conference sponsored by Boise State University and was invited to a January event sponsored by the American Association of University Women.
“I will accept those invitations to speak to groups, but what I really want to put a lot of energy in is to reaching out,” she said. “What I want to do is divide up the city and start making contacts.”
Camacho Mendoza said she’s building a plan to make formal presentations to businesses, neighborhood associations, churches, schools and other organizations all over the city.
“I’ve always felt that the most effective way is to go to communities, to where they are,” she said.
The more people know about the Office of Police Oversight, Boise Police Chief Bill Bones said, the more transparent and trusted the department will be.
Bones said he’s met several times with Camacho Mendoza, and his internal affairs team meets with her regularly. But don’t expect to see Bones joining Camacho Mendoza on the community outreach trail.
“I don’t want to dilute the independence of the office,” he said. “I’m hopeful that there will be forums where we both get to participate, but I certainly would not want to co-opt or make people have any misconceptions.”
Dunne thinks whatever time Camacho Mendoza can dedicate to outreach will yield good results.
“Her background is such that she has the ability to do that and will be good at it, from what I’ve seen,” he said.
Some people worried Bieter was gutting police oversight in Boise when he announced the head of the office would not be a full-time employee.
Bieter said the move was simply a response to a reduced workload. The number of complaints against police officers has plummeted since Murphy became ombudsman in 1999.
Maryanne Jordan, the City Council president, agreed with Bieter’s approach. It pays a reduced salary and doesn’t have to pay benefits such as insurance and retirement contributions.
“Let’s face it: In any other position in the city, if the workload had dropped off that significantly, it would definitely be reorganized. That’s for sure,” Jordan said at the council’s July 27 meeting.
Jones isn’t so sure. Like Dunne, he is worried people haven’t complained as much about police officers since Murphy left because people don’t know the office exists or what it does.
“I understand that the number of complaints has dropped, but is that because there has been some pretty good oversight by Pierce Murphy all these years, or is it because of other factors?” he said. “It may be a combination.”
Carolyn Terteling, who was a member of the City Council that created the ombudsman position, said the part-time status could work as long as Camacho Mendoza follows through on her commitment to spread the word that the Office of Police Oversight is there for everyone.
“As long as that person realizes the need to get out and be available and make people know she’s available, then that may make up the difference,” Terteling said.
Boise’s Director of Police Oversight
Natalie Camacho Mendoza
Professional experience: Former partner in Boise law firm Anderson Julian and Hull; founder of Boise law firm Camacho Mendoza Law; former Shoshone-Paiute Tribes prosecutor
City salary: $50,000