Growing up as the daughter of a farm worker in eastern Idaho, Natalie Camacho Mendoza
had her share of dealings with law enforcement in her community. The new director of the Office of Police Oversight
spoke with the Boise chapter of the American Association of University Women
on the afternoon of Jan. 19, and told the group about her experiences with police.
"African Americans and Latinos are taught to fear police," Mendoza said. "African Americans are taught to run, which makes it look to a police officer like they did something wrong. In my family, we were taught to deal with authority with respect—'yes, sir' and 'no, sir'—regardless of if you thought you were treated fairly or not."
Mendoza took over the Office of Police Oversight—formerly known as the Boise Office of the Community Ombudsman
—in August 2015. A big part of her focus has been on outreach within the community. She told the 65 members of the AAUW who attended her presentation that she suggested the name change of the office so the community would have a better understanding of what she does.
Mendoza's job comes down to taking complaints filed by citizens against the Boise Police Department. She said the office was originally created 15 years ago after a rash of police shootings in the late-1990s triggered citizen concerns. She was even on the original panel that helped create the position.
"I take this on at a time when [police brutality] is a national conversation," Mendoza said. "Many have known there have always been systematic problems in criminal justice and the relationship between police and low-income communities or communities of color. Ferguson [Mo.] just pulled back the covers."
She said she receives several calls from citizens that don't have a specific complaint about the police department, but they're angry at the national developments between police officers and the public.[image-3]
Mendoza explained the process her office follows when a citizen complaint is lodged. It begins with her listening to audio of the event and going over police reports, then sending the information to BPD's Internal Affairs. The department launches an investigation and contacts the complaining party with a resolution.
"That gets the leadership of the Boise Police Department involved in oversight of their own people," she said.
She then audits the investigation. Anytime there's a critical incident—including a serious injury or a death resulting from an interaction with a police officer—Mendoza conducts her own investigation, alongside BPD's Internal Affairs and the prosecutor's office. There were four critical incidents in Boise in 2015, one which resulted in the fatal shooting of Michael Casper
Mendoza said it's important Boise police officers spend more time out of their cars and interacting with their community. She wants to see a police force that reflects Boise's demographics, including more Latino and refugee officers.
"Refugees often come from a place where law enforcement is not a friend," she said. "Our department needs to understand how we can build trust across the board."
Between current complaints and investigations, the backlog of filings have built up over the time the position sat vacant. Combined with outreach efforts and new phone calls coming in, Mendoza has her hands full. On top of that, she also has her own practice as an attorney. She works for the city only 20 hours per week.
Regardless, Mendoza said BPD's relationship with the community is "ahead of the game." She said she didn't receive any complaints about the disbanding of the tent city called Cooper Court
, either, added BPD still has a ways to go.
"Our officers need to know their own biases and how to control them," she said. "There's still a lot in BPD's culture that needs to be changed."