Boise wasn’t as transparent as other cities in hiring new police chief

From the Idaho Press

By TOMMY SIMMONS and MARGARET CARMEL

When newly hired Boise Police Chief Ryan Lee appeared in a video press conference with Boise Mayor Lauren McLean on Wednesday, it marked the first time in the eight-month hiring process that members of the general public could ask him questions about how he views his job.

The mayor’s office announced June 1 it had hired Lee, the services branch chief of the Portland Police Bureau. The announcement followed just one other press release about the hiring process in April, in which McLean’s office declared the field of candidates had narrowed to two people.

Prior to that, an Idaho Press public records request in March revealed the city had four candidates in mind. That was the first time since former chief Bill Bones’ retirement in October that any news about the candidates had been released.

Boise’s approach to hiring a police chief isn’t unusual, but, across the country, some cities are more open than others when it comes to hiring leaders of police departments. Wednesday’s press conference marked the first time Lee answered questions from Boiseans who were not part of a city-selected panel. Other cities have had police chief candidates appear at public forums anyone can attend, to answer questions from city residents — something researchers consider to be a best practice.

That didn’t happen in Boise.

“Selection and vetting and analysis of who is the best person to lead this organization should be done in the most transparent of ways,” Rita J. Watkins, Ph.D., executive director of the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas, told the Idaho Press. “And so … having the opportunity (for residents) to at least share what they think they should have in a police chief is critical for the selection process.”

HISTORY

One of the things McLean pointed out during Wednesday’s video call was the fact that the search for a police chief began before her tenure, when Bones retired in October. That was during then-Mayor Dave Bieter’s leadership of the city. Just after Bones’ retirement, Assistant Police Chief Ron Winegar was appointed acting chief of the department, although former police chief Mike Masterson later took over that role. McLean again put Winegar in charge in April.

In January, almost three months after Bones’ retirement, the city still hadn’t said anything publicly about the search for a new chief. In a Jan. 10 email to Melanie Folwell — McLean’s then-spokeswoman — the Idaho Press listed nine questions it would have for potential candidates and the hiring committee. These included questions such as:

  • Are candidates being considered specifically from cities similar to Boise in size/demographic?
  • Is the selection committee considering candidates from (or who have worked in) cities that have experienced similar explosive growth to Boise?
  • Right now, Boise has a young police department. Almost all of its command staff are new within the past year, or year-and-a-half. Is the committee considering an older candidate or a younger one?
  • What would be the candidate’s approach to Boise’s camping ordinance (which prohibits sleeping on the street when there’s room in a shelter)? Would they want to change department policy in any way?
  • Masterson had mentioned that in terms of the department mirroring the community’s demographics, women are underrepresented among officers. Would the candidate want to hire more women specifically?

McLean didn’t address those questions in a January interview with the Idaho Press. She declined to say how many applications the city had received for the position, citing it as a personnel matter.

“I’ll be looking for a chief that continues to build on our focus on community policing,” McLean said in January.

She added she would be looking for someone who could “grow and improve upon the record of the department.”

Four panels interviewed Lee — one made up of “professions,” two of community organization leaders, and a fourth of longtime Boise Police Department employees.

OTHER CITIES

Other cities across the country have varied in their police chief search strategies, with many others taking input from the public in community meetings throughout the process or allowing candidates to stand for questions from residents in town halls before the final decision is made.

Alice Fulk, the assistant police chief of the Little Rock Police Department and one of Boise’s four finalists for the police chief position, was also a finalist to lead her current department in the spring of 2019. As part of the process in Little Rock, she was one of four finalists who participated in a town hall where residents could ask questions.

Boise officials have frequently compared Idaho’s capital to Madison, Wisconsin, because of the relatively similar population size. Masterson, the former Boise police chief, first worked for the Madison Police Department. That city started a search for a new police chief in late 2019, just like Boise, and announced plans for a series of four listening sessions for the public to provide input during the process. They were canceled due to COVID-19, but residents could still send in comments to the city to share what they were looking for in a new chief.

Richmond, Virginia, which is nearly identical to Boise in population although the greater metro area is much larger, named a department veteran as the police chief in the summer of 2019 after the city held multiple community meetings to hear input. A survey was also collected. After the input was gathered, applications were accepted and finalists were interviewed and selected by the mayor and city council.

Watkins pointed out the hiring process is entirely within the city council’s control; the body can change the process if it becomes necessary.

“They possess that type of authority because they’ve been elected by the citizens to make the best decisions for their city,” Watkins said. “They should’ve run on that level of trust, they probably got elected on that level of trust. In addition to that though, city officials need to consider … what’s critically going on, and then establish new criteria in reference to that.”

A few years ago, Watkins said, she participated in a dissertation study. In that study, a top reason police chiefs lost their jobs was because they didn’t have a solid working relationship with the community their department policed, Watkins said. Lee said on Wednesday his first priority upon arriving in Boise will be to begin establishing that relationship with the community, as well as with his officers.

But Watkins pointed out community meetings can help a police chief begin to establish that relationship, and sometimes candidates appreciate the opportunity to have those conversations before they’re hired.

“They don’t want to be set up to fail,” Watkins said. “Oftentimes, they want to have the opportunity to talk to the community first because … sometimes they’re being asked to work in another state. They’re relocating not just themselves but sometimes it’s their families. They’re going to other places, so is it going to be a fit?”

During the press conference, McLean called Lee a “partnership-builder.” His philosophy on crowd management — which informed the tactics the Portland Police Bureau used during 2017 and 2018 clashes between antifa and far-right protesters — has drawn both praise and criticism, but one of its core tenets includes building a relationship with the leaders of various protesting groups. Boise has not seen the type of heated, sometimes violent protests Portland has, but during the press conference Lee said building relationships with the community would still be his first priority as police chief, although he also acknowledged concerns about the new coronavirus would make that harder.

Asked if he’d taken steps in Portland to make the police bureau more transparent, Lee cited the data the bureau makes public online.

“People can see how we’re spending overtime for officers,” Lee said. “They can see crime rates in the city. They can see response times. They can see use-of-force data. I believe that level of transparency in the information age is important for policing, because if we’re going to have meaningful conversations with the public about how they want to see policing occur in their city, they need to know the actual data information so we can sit down and have a conversation about how we can best … work toward a solution.”

McLean also referenced transparency in her closing remarks to those on the video call.

“As Chief Lee mentioned today, transparency, open data, community engagement, partnership with the media — all those things are really important to us … here at City Hall,” she said.

From the Idaho Press

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