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Now and Then: Giving Voice to the Most Controversial Era of the Boise Police Department 

"History permits criticism and the freedom to say, 'These are things that we need to do better.'"

The years 1990 to 2014 were the most controversial in the history of the Boise Police Department. For more than two decades, the department was rocked by shootings and scandal, which began an evolution that ultimately redefined policing in Boise. Community as a Constant, a recently completed oral history, provides unprecedented public access to eyewitness accounts by the former police officers, police chiefs, elected officials and journalists of that era [Editor's note: An interview with Boise Weekly News Editor George Prentice is included in the oral history.]

Authored by Boise State University Historian Fellow Chelsee Boehm, Community as a Constant is her master's thesis, which she defended before a panel that included Boise History Programs Manager Brandi Burns and Boise State professors Dr. Joanne Klein, a published police historian in her own right, and Dr. Todd Shallat, author, historian and founder of the Center of Idaho History and Politics.

Alongside numerous other Idaho journalists and news organizations, and as Boehm is set to receive her graduate degree from Boise State, Community as Constant is now the formal property of the Boise City Department of Arts and History and available to the public as part of Boise's official record.

It is a detailed, personal and often emotional history.

"Ultimately, the project satisfies a number of audiences," said Shallat. "No. 1: Academia. No. 2: The city's Department of Arts and History. Keep in mind that all of this goes into the archives as an eternal resource. No. 3: The police department. And yes, there have been a number of things in their past that they wish had never happened. Finally, No. 4: The most important audience, the public. History permits criticism and the freedom to say, 'These are things that we need to do better.'"

'Dodge City'

By the late 1990s, the 130-year-old Boise Police Department was unaccustomed to serious outbreaks of violence. All of that changed in January 1996 when, over a 19-month period, six officer-involved shootings left seven citizens and one Boise police officer dead. A task force, formed in 1998 by then-Mayor Brent Coles, concluded that a number of Boise teens and parents had lost respect for the BPD, adding that they often saw police as a confrontational, authoritarian force, rather than a valuable contributor to the city.

click to enlarge Mike Wetherell - IDAHO FOURTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT
  • Idaho Fourth Judicial District Court
  • Mike Wetherell

Mike Wetherell, Boise City councilman, 1986-2003, 4th Judicial Court judge, 2003-2014

"It's a tragedy whenever anyone loses their life; but to sort of hold the city up as being a place where apparently, we were a 'Dodge City' or something, with the police out of control and shooting unarmed citizens in the streets, was simply inaccurate. You know, the famous saying of Mark Twain was that there are liars, damn liars and statisticians. And what they were doing was they were taking a very carefully chosen period of time and then they were saying, 'Well, statistically, Boise, for the population that it has, has the highest or one of the highest ratios of suspects killed by the police per capita in the nation.' And the problem with that is they chose the time frame." 1

click to enlarge Jim Kerns - COURTESY BOISE POLICE DEPARTMENT
  • Courtesy Boise Police Department
  • Jim Kerns

Jim Kerns, Boise police officer, sergeant, lieutenant, captain and deputy chief, 1982-2011

"We'd never experienced anything like that as an agency before, and so the public, the majority of the public, supported us for what we did. They believed that if we fired upon someone that they probably deserved it. But there was a faction of the public that became very vocal. They got the interest of the news media. And the news media then came to the police department to try to get additional information about this police officer-involved shooting. And it was during that time where the Boise Police Department had a policy where we really didn't have great media relations—we didn't work well with the public, or with the media. ... And when that happens and when you don't give the public, or the media, the information from yourself, they'll go out and find information that will fill their story. ... And we did our own investigation at the time of our officer-involved shootings, and that leads itself to their own concerns from the public that, 'Hey, if the police are shooting someone and they're doing their own investigation, they're going to obviously find that the police officer did the right thing.' And so, there was the appearance—and not real—but the appearance to the public that we were pretty closed, and that we [were] not going to open ourselves up to any kind of scrutiny by the media; therefore, the public had to draw its own conclusions based upon the media. And we still thought, as a police department, that the public should support us. And the majority did. There was just a very vocal minority that soon became a vocal force to be reckoned with. It was more than a minority but less than the majority." 2

click to enlarge Phillip Thompson - COURTESY PHILLIP THOMPSON
  • Courtesy Phillip Thompson
  • Phillip Thompson

Phillip Thompson, Idaho Black History Museum executive director

"You were always aware when dealing with the police—and my mother taught us, at a very young age, how to deal with [police] properly to lessen the likelihood of you either being shot, wrongfully incarcerated, beaten up, etc. So, that was ingrained when I was a kid: speak properly, speak respectfully, take a stand and, you know, stand up for yourself, know your rights. But at the same time, don't set yourself up for a tragic situation. Don't win the battle to lose the war." 3

Meanwhile, independent investigations from the Idaho Office of the Attorney General, FBI and U.S. Department of Justice all cleared the Boise police involved in the historic string of officer-involved shootings of the late 1990s. However, yet another fatal shooting on Sept. 20, 1997 would cast perhaps the longest shadow over the department.

Badge No. 512

Mark Stall served five years as a sheriff's deputy in Los Angeles County before he returned home to Boise where, soon thereafter, he joined the Boise Police Department. His fellow officers said Stall, who was assigned BPD Badge No. 512, was a bit of prankster, occasionally tying fishing line to rig the headlights, windshield wipers or siren to activate when a surprised partner jumped behind the wheel of a patrol car.

What occurred on Sept. 20, 1996 was no joking matter. A routine traffic stop of a 1977 Chevrolet Impala at 15th and Idaho streets, near the former Rider's Bar in downtown Boise, would end with Stall and two of the vehicle occupants dead. Stall and fellow Officer Ron Winegar were among several BPD officers who responded as backup to the traffic stop. According to witnesses, brothers Craig and Doug Brodrick emerged from the Impala, each wielding a weapon. A gun battle ensued, seriously injuring Winegar. A bullet struck Stall's right side, only an inch away from his protective vest. Stall was the first—and still the only—Boise police officer killed in the line of duty.

Mike Wetherell:

"There were recordings, which in my opinion helped show that the officers had given these two young men the opportunity to get rid of their weapons and surrender, and it just did not happen. There were independent witnesses who basically supported the police officers' description of what had happened. And at the same time, you had individuals who were saying, 'Well, you know, the police officers obviously just went crazy and started firing away.' And then you had other people who were saying, 'Well, they [the brothers] got exactly what they deserved.' And I made the statement at the time that the parents and the families of these two young men have every right to ask questions about what happened and how it happened and the facts that led up to it just as the police officers and the family of Officer Stall had the right to know what occurred and why their son or husband was killed. We don't [judge] things in this country by trial of opinion. We try to determine the facts and then make a reasonable judgment." 4

Two years after the incident, the parents of Craig and Doug Brodrick hired F. Lee Bailey, famed attorney for OJ Simpson, and lodged a $20 million federal lawsuit against the city of Boise, alleging BPD had violated their sons' civil rights and pointing to the department's then-recent history of officer-involved shootings. BPD rank-and-file stood by the shootings of the Brodrick brothers.

click to enlarge Stanton Niccolls - COURTESY BOISE POLICE DEPARTMENT
  • Courtesy Boise Police Department
  • Stanton Niccolls

Stanton Niccolls, Boise police officer, lieutenant, 1994-present

"The Brodrick brothers who shot Mark Stall had masks in their cars, they had guns in their cars, they were up to no good. That was a very good car stop by some officers, and it turned out to be a traffic incident. But I have no doubt in my mind that the Brodrick brothers would have either performed robberies, kidnappings, something, because people don't drive around with those type of masks. They had their gun holsters riveted into their pants pockets, so they were carrying concealed in such a way that they could get their guns out quickly. They were up to no good." 5

In 1998, federal investigators cleared BPD of any criminal civil rights violations in connection with the Brodrick shootings. It wasn't until February 2001 that the parents of the Brodrick brothers dropped their civil suit against the city of Boise; but the Boise Police Department was still reeling from the string of officer-involved shootings and the loss of Officer Stall.

Jim Kerns:

"That changed our community, it changed our police department, and that changed our lives dramatically. So when Mark was killed, the public outcry for the shooting of a police officer was deafening. The public really came out and supported us and when Mark's funeral was held, we actually had a procession that lasted well over five miles. It started at the Boise State Pavilion and it ended at Dry Creek Cemetery; and by the time the first cars got to Dry Creek, there were still cars in the parking lot at the Pavilion trying to get into the procession. The streets were lined, the marquees along State Street were: 'We love you, Mark,' 'We support the police department.' And we thought maybe we had turned a corner." 6

A City Hall Scandal

A big part of "turning that corner" was the creation of a new Boise police ombudsman position. The Boise City Council created the office of the ombudsman in November 1997, but it wasn't until March 1999 that the city hired then-Boise Cascade Human Resources Manager Pierce Murphy to serve as an independent investigator of citizen complaints against BPD. At the time, then-Boise City Councilman Mike Wetherell said Murphy needed the full-throated support of elected officials because, "we could hire Jesus Christ for this position and he could not fill it without help from his father."

Stanton Niccolls:

"The ombudsman didn't bother me at all. If you've got clean officers, having people look at you shouldn't bother you. Now, don't get me wrong. When you're involved in something, you're always worried about, 'Are they going to see what I saw?' and 'Are they going to believe me when I tell them what happened?' That's just a part of life. But, the thing about the ombudsman is they come in and now the citizens have somebody they can talk to and you've got a non-police department person investigating your crime. So, when they come out, hopefully it helps calm the citizen that think that maybe the police are trying to do some sort of cover-up." 7

There was a cover-up emerging, but at Boise City Hall. The scandal would not only take down the administration of then-Mayor Coles but end up tainting the leadership of then-Boise Police Chief Don Pierce. Coles was convicted of fraud and misuse of public money. As the scandal was beginning to gain steam, Coles turned to Pierce and asked him to conduct an internal investigation into allegations that the mayor, his chief of staff and human resources director had all used public funds to finance a 2002 whirlwind trip to New York City—including pricey meals and Broadway show tickets. Pierce's probe into the matter only lasted three days, didn't include any tape-recorded interviews of his subjects and, by Pierce's own admission, included the destruction of Pierce's own handwritten notes.

click to enlarge Don Pierce - COURTESY BOISE POLICE DEPARTMENT
  • Courtesy Boise Police Department
  • Don Pierce

Don Pierce, Boise police chief, 2000-2004

"The result of that was my reputation was being tarnished. There was a lot of overflow onto the police department, and their reputations also took a hit because of it." 8

While Coles and his two associates were subsequently convicted and sent to jail, newly hired Ombudsman Pierce Murphy, in a scathing 156-page report, wrote that Pierce had done a lousy job in his internal investigation and had even failed to cooperate with the Idaho attorney general's criminal investigation. Chief Pierce was also losing the support of his own officers, when the Boise Police Union slapped him with a vote of "no confidence." That didn't bode well for Pierce's professional future, since newly elected Boise Mayor Dave Bieter had swept into office with robust support from the union.

Don Pierce:

"In the long term, we may have come to understand each other, but I didn't necessarily agree with some of the things that [Bieter] wanted to do. I thought that he was way too easy with the union. I believed that he owed the union for helping him get elected and that was going to cause a lot of problems during the upcoming negotiations. I think the union thought that I was going to cause a lot of problems, and about three weeks into his term of office, he said that he would like me to resign. I said, 'Fine with me. Here's my resignation.' And that was the end of it." 9

Through the course of Bieter's administration, which began in 2003 and continues to this day, BPD would face more events shaping its reputation, for good or ill. Among them were the December 2004 fatal officer-involved shooting of Boise teen Matthew Jones and a July 2009 armed shootout with Iraq War veteran George Nickel, who survived the ordeal and went on to aid BPD in its treatment of vets. Of a more positive nature is BPD's evolution of "community policing" techniques, softening and enhancing the department's image.

"I should point out that everyone I heard from didn't put any restrictions on my questions and all of the former chiefs, police officers, citizens, journalists, you name it, cooperated with the project," Boehm said. "All except one: Dan Popkey."

Boehm was referring to the former Idaho Statesman journalist, whose byline appeared above scores of some of Boise's biggest stories during his tenure (1984-2014). Popkey currently serves as press secretary to Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho).

"For some reason, he was having none of it," she said.

Meanwhile, Boehm had a postscript:

"I just decided to enlist in the Boise Police Department Citizen Police Academy," she said. "What's the most important thing I learned from all of this? Police officers are people. We see the uniform. We see the gun. And I guess it should be obvious but it's not. They are us. We are them."

1 Mike Wetherell–0H031

2 Jim Kerns–OH018

3 Phillip Thompson–OH036

4 Mike Wetherell–OH031

5 Stanton Niccolls–OH033

6 Jim Kerns–OH018

7 Stanton Niccolls–OH033

8-9 Don Pierce–OH016

Boise Police Department Oral History Project, Boise City Department of Arts and History

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