The Over/Under on Pierce Murphy 

The man who has brought oversight to the Boise and Seattle Police Departments is often under fire.

Pierce Murphy (center) served 14 years as ombudsman for the city of Boise before accepting the job as watchdog of the Seattle Police Department in 2013.

Port of Seattle Police Dept.

Pierce Murphy (center) served 14 years as ombudsman for the city of Boise before accepting the job as watchdog of the Seattle Police Department in 2013.

Controversy doesn't always follow Pierce Murphy; it just feels that way. Murphy served as Boise's first and, to date, only ombudsman, effecting significant change to the Boise Police Department. After 14 often turbulent years, Murphy was recruited to the city of Seattle in 2013 to bring transparency to a police department that had been cited by the U.S. Department of Justice for violating the U.S. Constitution with its excessive use of force. Now, after fewer than three years in Seattle—in which time the city's police union referred to him as a "Wolf in Sheep's Clothing"—Murphy has been told by Mayor Ed Murray that he will not be automatically reappointed to another three-year term.

But Murphy said multiple reports of his departure are premature, at best.

"I'm not a quitter," he told Boise Weekly. "I'm a soft-spoken guy. At the same time, I'm resolute. I'm not backing down."

Murphy doesn't opt for theatrical overstatement. But when it came to reports of his possible ouster, Murphy quoted Mark Twain:

"The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated," paraphrasing Twain's 1897 quote.

This isn't Murphy's first brush with pushback from a police force. The first time most Boiseans heard of Murphy was when the former human resources executive for Boise Cascade was hired in 1999 to create an ombudsman's office for the city.

"Some people may forget that in the mid-1990s, Boise saw seven officer-involved shootings in 23 months. There were eight deaths, including Officer Mark Stall—the first and, to date, only [Boise] officer to be killed in the line of duty," Murphy said. "There was great concern."

Nearly five years after being tasked to bring accountability to the Boise police force, Murphy faced a critical moment both for the city and his career. On Dec. 17, 2004, 16-year-old Matthew Jones approached a Boise police officer with an unloaded antique gun, outfitted with a bayonet. Seconds later, Jones was dead. Murphy's inquest took the department to task, particularly for its training—or lack thereof.

"It was a proving ground for the city and its police department," said Murphy. "Then-Chief Mike Masterson had just taken over the department. In the following years, we had a mutually trusting and challenging relationship. We disagreed at times, but Chief Masterson never told me something that wasn't true."

That was then.

Murphy led many more inquests and had more than a few disagreements with Boise police.

"You may recall that there were, quite often, challenges to the ombudsman's office, sometimes from City Hall and sometimes from the administration of the police department. But most of those challenges would come from the Boise police union," Murphy said. "If I remember right, the union tried to sue me twice."

Still, Murphy was quick to characterize his 14 years as Boise's police watchdog as, "the most fulfilling, challenging, satisfying professional assignment I ever had. I absolutely love Boise."

When Seattle called Murphy in 2013, asking him to be that city's watchdog, Murphy thought long and hard before uprooting his family.

He said relations—particularly with Seattle's rank-and-file police officers—were cordial; and he and the president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, would meet monthly.

But those relations turned frosty in July 2015 when Murphy sharply criticized a Seattle police officer, saying she violated rules, including biased policing, when she jailed a 69-year-old African American man, accusing him of swinging a golf club at her. A dashcam video failed to substantiate any of the officer's claims.

"The head of the police union said he was canceling all future meetings with me," said Murphy.

The union, primarily through social media, spent the better part of the next 12 months ripping Murphy. Beyond the "wolf in sheep's clothing" characterization, which came in January, the police union stated it was "absolutely disgusted" by Murphy's recommendations. On Twitter, the union started using the hashtag "sendhimbacktoBoise" and, on Facebook, it called Murphy "the biggest train wreck to hit Seattle in memory."

"The Seattle media monitors that social media traffic, particularly The Stranger. They're the equivalent of the Boise Weekly in Seattle," said Murphy. "You may have read some of those reports. That friction got a fair amount of attention."

As far as the Seattle mayor opting not to renew his contract, Murphy said he's still on the job and will remain so, "until I'm replaced or until I resign."

"What a lot of people don't know is that the Seattle mayor wants to wait for a status conference hearing later this summer," said Murphy. "That's when a federal judge will want an update on reforms for the Seattle Police Department. That's critical."

In the meantime, Murphy said he watched with interest as city of Boise officials redefined his old job, turning his full-time ombudsman position into the part-time Office of Police Oversight.

"It's difficult for me to comment on that," Murphy said. "I'm too close to it. In many ways, that was my child."

When asked if a city the size of Boise should have a part- or full-time watchdog, Murphy drew a long breath before answering.

"You don't need fire insurance until your house catches fire," he said.

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