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New Boise Police Chief On Tactics, Trauma, Independent Oversight And Enforcing A Face Mask Mandate

City of Boise

Ryan Lee had no intention of being a cop ... initially. A veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, in fact it was the Guard that chose his college degree: Criminal Justice. That led him to a Master of Criminal Justice degree from Boston University, nearly two decades with the Portland (Ore.) Police Department and, ultimately, the top job with the Boise Police Department.

Less than two weeks into his tenure with BPD, Lee visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about a long list of issues, including the current crisis of confidence in policing in America, the rarely talked-about trauma of a beat cop, independent police oversight, enforcement of Boise's current Public Health Order and why he's not overly anxious to use the "P" word (hint: it's a large city in Oregon).

“There are clearly deep, emotional scars that still exist for certain communities around policing. And, unfortunately, it doesn't take that much for some of those scars and the injuries from them to resurface.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. This month, Ryan Lee was sworn in as Boise's new police chief. Indeed it's a heady responsibility and these are critical times for any chief of police in an American city. Ryan Lee joins us this morning, live via Zoom. Chief, welcome, and good morning.

CHIEF RYAN LEE: Good morning to you. Thank you very much.

PRENTICE: Chief, I'd like to spend a few minutes talking about the shadow cast across law enforcement in America. Can you appreciate... Or I'm certain you understand where so much concern and sometimes so much anger is coming from this year regarding law enforcement in America?

LEE: No, I absolutely understand the sentiment. The first thing that I think we have to acknowledge is that, if we look at the entire profession of policing throughout the United States and we look at, historically, policing has not always been on the right side of history. It hasn't always bared out that well, and there are clearly deep, emotional scars that still exist for certain communities around policing. And, unfortunately, it doesn't take that much for some of those scars and the injuries from them to resurface, and I think it's important for us as we move forward to both acknowledge and understand that.

It's an interesting time to watch as cities have expanded and we look at how policing is being perceived, in a lot of communities it's fundamentally different than how it's being perceived here in Boise, Idaho.

And I think a large part of that has to do with Boise's very deliberate pivot and heavy investment in community policing over two decades ago. Frankly, to address concerns from the community about our legitimacy at that time, it was a wise and strategic move. It's bared out very well for us as a community from both crime rates, but more importantly, from a trust and legitimacy standpoint. I think, unfortunately, many other cities in America didn't recognize the necessity of that approach and we're seeing now 20, 30 years down the road, a failure to invest in how that's starting to manifest itself with some of the discontent, distrust, and challenges that they're facing now.

PRENTICE: Chief, can I ask why you're a cop? Was there a moment in your life that pointed you in this direction?

LEE: I will tell you the story of how I became a police officer because it's interesting. I did not grow up with some intention to be a police officer. I had an intention of being a career officer in the military. One of my high school mentors had been a retired Air Force Colonel and I saw that as a noble profession. When the Coast Guard offered me a commissioning opportunity, part of the conditions were that they got to select the degree that I would earn and they chose a Criminal Justice degree. And so at the end of my service in the Coast Guard, there's really only so many ways you can apply a degree like that and policing seemed to be a natural fit and so I am, in many ways, an accidental police officer, but the ideals of service to a greater cause of protecting things that are important to both country and community, those carried over from the visions of how I saw my career carrying out as a young man to how they played out to today.

PRENTICE: May I ask if you've ever had to fire your weapon while in-service?

LEE: I fortunately have not.

PRENTICE: It may not be the worst thing to happen in the life of an officer, but firing your weapon has to, I'm going to guess, be one of the more horrible things for a police officer. Yes?

LEE: I would absolutely agree with that. Unfortunately I think that gets lost sometimes in public dialogue, the humanity of a police officer behind the badge, many of the actions that we have to take in interest in the greater good for the community do bare a toll on us and it can be a challenge and it doesn't have to be as significant as firing their weapon, but even simple things such as responding to a crash where you're seeing your neighbors and people that could easily be your neighbors or your friends, grievously injured in a crash, that slow toll is heavy and it bears a burden on police officers and I think often sometimes gets lost in the dialogue about policing.

PRENTICE: Three days before you were sworn into office, the Boise Police Department announced it would suspend the use of the lateral vascular neck restraint, or the LVNR, a controversial type of neck hold. Did you have anything to do with that?

Boise Police Department Car Logo
Credit Lacey Daley / Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio

LEE: I had conversations with Deputy Chief Winegar about his intention, why he was the acting chief, to make that suspension and the moratorium around it so that it could be evaluated. I think it was a wise and prudent move at the time to do. I can understand the public's concern around it and I think that it bears us examining even if from a statistical standpoint, it has proven to be safe in our applications and effective. I think we also have to look at concerns of legitimacy, public perception, and sort of an equal application as to how we would perceive it if the public were to be applying that towards a police officer versus how we view it maybe, or historically how some agencies have viewed it in their application as a control technique.

PRENTICE: Chief, we have a public health order to wear face coverings in the city.

LEE: Yes we do.

PRENTICE: How is the department enforcing that?

LEE: Well, I really think that we're taking an education-first approach. Enforcement would be an option of last resort, it's one that we could exercise if necessary, but I think much as the health officials would tell you, and by full disclosure, I'm not a health official, but in my understandings and in my briefings, any increase in the wearing of face-covering or masks to prevent or reduce the potential for transmission of the coronavirus, or COVID-19, is an advantage. And so, as officers are going about our day, the opportunity to educate and inform people of the risk of both the mortality and morbidity rates as we understand them and the potential harm that causes the public and to encourage people first to wear a face mask, is far better approach than one based off of enforcement. That would be an option of last resort and one that, fortunately, we have had no need to exercise up and to this point.

PRENTICE: That said, I'm old enough to remember when seat belts were optional and there was education there, but at a certain point, education ends and enforcement begins. Would you not agree?

LEE: There is always that potential, but I don't know that we have reached that critical point and I think we'll cross that bridge if we have to.

PRENTICE: I think most people would recognize that the Boise Police Department, through a fair amount of hard work and some amount of luck, has had a fairly decent reputation for the last several years. That said, many of us remember... Well, about 15 years ago when the department was drowning in crises, including scandal and an unacceptable amount of officer-involved shootings. We were in desperate need of an ombudsman office. So that did happen, an ombudsman called for dramatic change and change happened, but then we softened that office, we created an office of police oversight, which over the last few years has become part-time at best. Where are you on transparency and independent oversight?

LEE: I think that independent oversight in the modern era of policing is absolutely expected by the public. And frankly, if we're policing appropriately and we're doing what the public expects of us, we should have no concern about independent oversight, and it really goes hand-in-hand with transparency. I think especially now, in the information age, there is an expectation for members of the public to have a high degree of understanding and a high degree of detail quickly at their fingertips available to what any governmental agency may be doing, whether that's the parks department or the police department. I think it's wholly appropriate that we embrace that cultural shift and that we do everything we can to make our processes as transparent as possible.

Obviously, there are occasionally challenges such as privacy laws and employment laws that may make some of that a little more challenging than other pieces, but I think as much as we can provide information openly and transparently to the public, it's to our advantage. If we wish to engage in a community policing approach, and we want to have a dialogue with the community about how they want to be policed, what issues are concerning them, it only seems appropriate to arm them with as much information as possible so that we can have both an informed conversation on both sides of the table.

PRENTICE: You've talked about a so-called dashboard, an online dashboard where I guess that folds into what you just said about transparency. Could you paint me a word picture of what that might look like?

LEE: Well, I'll do my best. Dashboards are really designed to be visual representations that people can quickly and easily access via the information age, and they would paint a picture. So say, for example, we want to look at stops related information, we could capture locations where stops are occurring, times when the stops might be occurring, or reasons behind them. Other demographics that could be of concern, outcomes of those stops, and the public could sit down and look and easily see what was going on [crosstalk 00:09:38]

PRENTICE: So as a citizen, I would have online access to that?

LEE: Ideally it would be posted online and it would be updated as quickly as possible. Obviously, there are records processing issues and so we need to make sure that the information that's posted up there is accurate. Often, there's a little coding errors, there's the human fallibility of the typographical error that could code an event very differently from a record standpoint, and so there's a need on the backend to go through and verify all that before final entry, and that always winds up causing some delay.

PRENTICE: Have you seen this in another department? Is there a template for something like this?

LEE: At my former employer, we very much so worked hard to develop dashboards for everything from-

PRENTICE: In Portland, yes?

LEE: Pardon?

PRENTICE: In Portland?

LEE: Yes, in Portland. I try not to refer to Portland too much because I prefer to focus on the fact that I'm here in Boise now. But yeah, my former employment in Portland. We had worked very hard to develop dashboards to make as much transparent as possible. Right before I departed of that department we were getting ready to go live with a fiscal dashboard that would have shown over time expenditure rates and made literally down to sort of how we're spending our money transparent to the public.

PRENTICE: Well, I have to ask, and you can make this answer as short or as long as you'd like. The Portland police department is not having its best year this year. Would you agree to that?

LEE: I would think that there's a high degree of public scrutiny and there are some very distinct challenges going on in that city.

PRENTICE: Tell me about your family.

LEE: I am a family man. I have a college-age student, a son, a high school aged daughter, and I've been married for 25 years.

PRENTICE: And have you found a place to live?

LEE: Oh, I am working on that. In case you haven't noticed, the housing market in Boise is rather challenging.

PRENTICE: So I've heard. So you're looking, yes?

LEE: That I am.

PRENTICE: Have you had an opportunity to talk with your predecessor or predecessors?

LEE: Yes, I've actually met with Chief Bones. I'm supposed to meet later today with Chief Masterson and have a discussion at a socially distantly appropriate manner. It's very rare that you come in as a police chief to any large city in America, and by talking to two people, have the opportunity to capture 15 years of history, a decade and a half, of the executive lens of how that organization ran, and so I feel fortunate to be able to do that with both of those gentlemen.

PRENTICE: Ryan Lee is Boise's his new Chief of Police. Chief, we wish you safety and good fortune and safe journey. Thank you, sir.

LEE: Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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