Who Watches the Watchmen? 

Advocates want Boise's Office of the Community Ombudsman position filled sooner rather than later, but Mayor Dave Bieter is in no hurry

In the early morning hours of Feb. 16, Boise police responded to a report of a man using a crowbar to break out the windows of a duplex in the Depot Bench neighborhood at the corner of Malad and Gourley streets. Officer Jason Green was the first on the scene and tried to make contact with the man as more officers arrived. According to initial reports, the man, later identified as Michael Casper, 26, of Boise, fired gunshots inside the residence, then reached outside the window and pointed a pistol at another officer. Green fired his weapon at Casper, who died from a gunshot wound to the chest (for more on the shooting, see News, Page 6).

An investigation by the county-wide Critical Incident Task Force (CITF) continues, but upon its completion, a separate investigation will be conducted by the Boise Office of the Community Ombudsman led by Dennis Dunne, who has held the position on a part-time basis since July 2013, when Pierce Murphy, who was the full-time ombudsman for 14 years, left Boise to perform similar duties in Seattle.

Along with police oversight, it's the ombudsman's job to review internal police investigations and look into "critical incidents," in which police use force that results in injury or death. The ombudsman also regularly reports to the Boise City Council on incidents of concern and law enforcement trends that may be of interest to the Council and the public.

The "interim" in Dunne's job title worries some, including Dunne. Many remember the spate of police-involved shootings that spurred the creation of the office in 1999, and they fear independent police oversight will go by the wayside if a permanent replacement for Murphy isn't found soon. At City Hall, a nationwide search for a new ombudsman has stalled, and Mayor Dave Bieter is considering asking the City Council to downsize the position from full-time to part-time, suggesting there's little rush to fill the vacancy by citing the low number of complaints the ombudsman has received in recent years. Ultimately, the ombudsman's role may shrink, and that's a move that some say would undermine one of the institutions that helped rebuild community trust in the BPD for more than 15 years.

"I think the ombudsman's office is in a great space right now," Murphy told Boise Weekly from his new office in Seattle. "But you can't say you no longer have need for the systems that got us here."

'The Runaround'

As a community relations specialist, Melissa Baker knew that one of her principal jobs would be to educate Boiseans on the systems Murphy was referring to. Baker, who lives in Charlotte, S.C., applied for the top job at Boise's Office of the Community Ombudsman in the fall of 2014 and consulted regularly with Murphy. Out of those talks, she came to understand that should she land the position, she'd need to show the community what an ombudsman is, what the office does and why it's important.

"One thing [Murphy] said that was really important to me, he felt like cases or reports were down because he felt like the position had been vacant for so long that people didn't think it was there," Baker said. "That indicated to me that right out of the gate, I'd be doing a lot of education and outreach to the community."

The number of complaints lodged with the ombudsman against BPD officers and the number of critical incidents have declined in recent years. In 2012, Murphy investigated 92 cases, including four critical incidents and 13 complaints. The next year, the office investigated 64 cases including two critical incidents and eight complaints. In the 2014 mid-year report, the office investigated 21 cases, with one complaint.

Baker has experience with the mentally ill, child abuse and fair housing investigations, police disciplinary review, and strategic community relations, and she is a member of the National Association of Human Rights Workers. She relished the thought of putting those skills to use in Boise. Baker said the city offered her the ombudsman position, but negotiations snagged on the cost of moving her family to Boise and on what Baker described as an "invasive" series of background checks. When rumors began circulating about Bieter looking into reducing the ombudsman's position to part-time, Baker began considering a lawsuit against the city for rescinding its original employment offer.

"[The city] hasn't given me a legitimate business reason," she said. "Honestly, I feel like I've been getting the runaround because I'm getting so many answers."

Baker learned about the ombudsman's position in Boise from a brochure and letter mailed to her by a California recruiter. After two phone interviews, the city flew her from Charlotte to Boise. During her stay Oct. 19-22, 2014, she had an in-person interview with a panel of executive staff, including Chief Deputy City Attorney Steve Rutherford; then-BPD Officer (now Chief) Bill Bones; City Human Resources Director Shawn Miller; Stephanie DeMars from Human Resources; and Mayoral Administrative Assistant Jade Riley. Baker had a separate interview with Mayor Bieter, during which Baker said he assured her that the job would be a full-time position. City staff told Baker that they would have an answer for her by the first week of November 2014.

November came and went. On Jan. 5, 2015, Baker received a phone call from Bieter, who said the position had initially been offered to another candidate who had declined. Now, he was offering it to her. She told him she was honored and, the next day, she received a conditional offer of employment in the mail. Once Human Resources had completed a background check, she'd be given a start date and her annual salary would be $95,000. She was elated by the offer, but parts of the agreement worried her: The letter stated she would be reimbursed $6,400 for moving costs—it was going to cost her more than twice that to ship her possessions to Boise. She made a counter offer of $23,000 for moving expenses and requested her first paycheck be remitted to her upon her arrival in Boise. Baker told BW that If she took the job, she would be a single mother moving across the country who hadn't had a paycheck in six weeks. When she heard that the mayor balked at her moving expenses, she was furious.

"I don't know many Americans who could go six weeks without a paycheck and move," Baker said. "I don't know how the mayor lives, but my sense is that he's not living like the rest of America, let alone the fact that I never brought up that I'm a single parent. Does that mean he wants a wealthy person?"

A private investigator arrived in Charlotte on Jan.19 to conduct a background check on Baker. She described the probe as exhaustive and invasive, with the investigator speaking to her friends and co-workers about her personal and professional life. He examined an incident in which Baker and her family were victims of a crime. She wouldn't go into detail about the crime itself, describing it as "very personal," but she said it resulted in a grand jury investigation and stressed that the case reflected no criminal wrongdoing on her part. Baker believed she passed with flying colors.

"[Shawn Miller] got back to me and he told me, 'You have a lot of fans.' He said, 'You are very highly respected both personally and professionally,'" she told BW.

While Baker was in regular contact with the city's Human Resources Department, she was getting mixed or no signals from Bieter's office. Then she received word that the mayor had rejected her counter proposal for moving costs—and she hadn't been given a start date.

"Did I pass the fingerprints? Did I pass the background check? He said yes. Why don't I have a start date? I got a lot of different answers: The mayor was going in a different direction with the position; 'he had problems with relocation," Baker said.

Baker said that the process made her feel as though the city's right hand didn't know what its left hand was doing. Though she told BW she was still interested in the job, adding that Miller was helpful and supportive, her experience with the mayor left her feeling as though other areas of city government may have been unaware of the conflict happening in her pursuit of the position.

"It appeared to me that [the Boise City Council] didn't seem to know what my side of the story was, what I had been told and what I was going through. I'm not sure if they were part of the decision," Baker said.

The mayor's office doesn't comment on personnel issues, but Communications Director Mike Journee said Bieter is considering asking City Council to reduce the position from full- to part-time because of a drop in the number of complaints made to the ombudsman's office as well as the unsuccessful attempts to fill a full-time position. Currently, Journee said, there's no particular urgency to take Dunne out of the role of interim ombudsman, and shrinking the job could be seen as a move toward greater fiscal responsibility at City Hall and a less adversarial relationship with BPD.

"This position will continue; it's just a matter of being a proper steward of public resources and making sure that the workload and the position match," Journee said. "The importance of having a position like this is so people can understand police operations, what happens and why."

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