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Boise Police Chief On Vandalism Probe, Martin v Boise Settlement And Navigating COVID

City of Boise

On any given day, the Boise Police force is investigating scores of open cases; but two high-profile crimes, hate-inspired vandalism at the Anne Frank Memorial and Abraham Lincoln statue in Julia Davis Park, triggered significant concern."That sort of hateful conduct ... that sort of activity causes us significant alarm," said Boise Police Chief Ryan Lee. "We have no appetite for it in our community; and we'll look at it from a criminal lens, and pursue whatever we can."

Lee visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the investigations into the vandalism, the recent Martin v Boise settlement, the recently published crime rate report, and the impact of COVID-19 on his department.

“They still have to go out and do the job every day. And so, we have to balance that. We have to be very mindful to look at any potential issues of infection.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. The chief is here. Ryan Lee is the Chief of Police for the City of Boise. Chief Lee, good morning.

RYAN LEE: Morning, sir. How are you?

PRENTICE: I am well… thank you. I'd like to start with some updates on a few items making news this week: up top, there is a proposal at the Idaho Legislature this year that would prevent protests at private homes. It has passed out of committee and it has gotten support from a number of law enforcement entities in Idaho. How do you weigh in on this proposal?

LEE: Well, I think what would be fair for me to say is that as the executive branch or part of the executive branch of government, it's not my job necessarily to weigh in on legislation. It's my job to execute on the legislation, as with the men and women in this department, to execute on that legislation. And we'll be happy to work through any twists or turns to any potential legislation that may be introduced. But at this point in time, I look forward to the appropriate and intelligent response from my legislators as to what they view as an important issue that we should move forward on.

PRENTICE: Well, then I'll ask this: Is it fair to say that the men and women who wear a badge are keeping a close eye on this?

LEE: I think any time there's legislation that could potentially have impacts to the policing profession, whether that's new crimes or changes to the criminal code as they exist, we're paying attention because it's obviously going to affect if it doesn't directly affect the way we have to do our work, it's going to affect the public's perception of what they want us to do in our work. And sometimes those two don't always line up as easily as people think.

PRENTICE: I know that on any given day your department is working on scores of investigations. But what can you tell us today about two pretty high-profile incidents: vandalism - some pretty intense messages of hate - at the Anne Frank Memorial and at the Lincoln statue in Julia Davis Park?

LEE: Well, I'll start with the Anne Frank Memorial and say that that sort of hateful conduct, that sort of activity causes us significant alarm, that we have no appetite for it in our community and that we'll look at it from a criminal lens and pursue whatever we can. I think part of the challenge for folks to understand in this really relates to both the Anne Frank Memorial and the Lincoln memorial is that we need to build solid cases, not just quickly try and identify an individual and arrest them, but we need to make sure that the case that will be presented to the prosecutors is absolutely essential as it can be. And so, in some cases, and I'll switch gears and talk a little bit about the Lincoln Memorial, obviously, there are some people claiming responsibility for it, but we need to go beyond just somebody's assertion of responsibility. I think that any of us can sit down and realize that there's a variety of things that people claim responsibility for, that they may have at best had a general role in versus a substantive role. And so we need to be able to build a case against the real offenders and to make sure that that case is one that can be prosecuted and prosecuted successfully. If we wind up arresting individuals that the case is not as solid as we want to be, it won't succeed in its prosecution. It can actually have a counterproductive effect. We can wind up with people then feeling empowered to continue engaging in that type of behavior. So that's part of the challenges we're working with both cases. What I think is fair to say about both of them is that the police department takes them very seriously where we're concerned with that type of behavior and that we are investigating actively on both matters.

PRENTICE: Last week, we learned that a fourth Boise police officer claimed that he was retaliated against by the department, claiming he was wrongfully terminated in retaliation for providing information during an internal affairs investigation.  And understanding that the incidents we're talking about was before you came on board…all that said, you've got the corner office. So, what would you tell a lay person? What would you tell a citizen who asks, “What's going on, what's going on inside the department?” What's the morale within the department?

LEE: I think what would be appropriate for me to say is I shouldn't comment on anything that's potentially a legal pending pending matter, or pending legal matter. And so specifically to that, I shouldn't comment. I think that in a broader sense, it's appropriate for everybody to let the process work its course and then to see the issue. I think if you want to talk about a much more general subject, such as morale of the men and women of the Boise police department, I think it's fair to talk about the morale of American policing in general. And right now there's a high level of scrutiny. There's a high level of criticism on the profession and why we enjoy a significant amount of support here in this community that other communities don't. It's not that what happens in your neighbor's house. It's not that you don't know and it doesn't weigh heavily on your mind. And so I think that that's a very real challenge right now for leadership in policing, even here in the Treasure Valley to sort of navigate. The impacts that we've seen towards our profession and how is making men and women look at it, I think a prime example that can be seen in our efforts towards recruitment. It used to be years ago when I entered into the police profession, you had posed for a police officer and you would see thousands of people apply to take an exam. And we're seeing a markedly smaller number of people applying and even a smaller percentage of those are actually qualified to be offered the job. So it's a challenge.

PRENTICE: Let's talk about the pandemic. How has it impacted the force?

LEE: Well, it's a challenge because obviously the policing profession requires us to be in close contact with individuals. Some of those people are engaging in lifestyles where they might not be as mindful about health conditions as others. And so the exposure rate for our officers is significant. We have to manage that space. We've given them the appropriate personal protective equipment. We give them the opportunity to take those measures. But we have had incidences of COVID-19 among our officers here. And it's it's a challenge. We're trying to work through a space where other folks are navigating the space of essentially staying at home or working remotely or officers the entire pandemic, as all police officers in America have been asked to go forwards under these challenging health conditions while still wearing the emotional strains are going on at home. Maybe their significant other isn't working. Maybe they're concerned about the health of family members and what they might be exposed to and actually bring home. But they still have to go out and do the job every day. And so we have to balance that. We have to be very mindful to look at any potential issues of infection. But we also can't afford to quarantine officers at a rate that we're in effectively be able to deliver the core services that a city needs to thrive.

PRENTICE: The most recent crime report indicates that overall crime was down in the city last year, due in part to the pandemic. Can I also assume that the stress of the pandemic is leading to more mental health checkups? That's got to be a growing issue.

LEE: Well, I think that there's a variety of challenges. as you referred, the most recent report shows that overall crime is down. And I think it's important to put that in context. Overall reporting crime is down. And so when we deal with the pandemic, there are a variety of crimes where we've seen we may be seeing what appears to be a significant drop, or at least not an increase commensurate with the growth of the area that we would expect. But the question really is, are we hearing from the victims? Are we hearing from witnesses? You know, when we take a look at examples of calls into the child abuse hotline, there's been a substantial drop. When students were not going even part time to school, we saw a substantial drop. They came into child abuse hotline, health and welfare follow up, and obviously criminal matters would be investigated from that. And so some of this is we're not necessarily going to see all of those challenges until later. We do see calls for mental health related issues. I don't know that those are necessarily at a greater rate for those being called in to the police department. I think that probably there's a better question, really, for our mental health providers, are they seeing a greater strain? I mean, we're a small component in that. And there's probably a lot of people that are seeking out health care through those providers. But, you know, as we've talked, the challenges of the pandemic, the emotional strain on it, and not just from the concerns of the pandemic itself, when we start to add things like financial strains and those impacts, those often have substantial, substantial drivers that can cause challenges for us with reported crime rates again. And people are reporting. And so I think on the backside of this, we're going to have to really look back and figure out what was happening that we didn't necessarily know about. And what challenges does that give us as a legacy?

PRENTICE: The Martin v. Boise case, a landmark case, was settled earlier this month and the City of Boise agreed to invest in more services and infrastructures to assist the homeless. How does that impact your department? You're not handing out tickets for, quote unquote, campaign on a city street or in a public park to men and women who don't happen to have a home? This is a change for you. Yes?

LEE: No, actually, it's not a substantive change that I think people perceive it to be. The Boise police department, as the case proceeded forwards prior to my arrival, really looked at the practices. And what was the nature behind the lawsuit in many of our practices and procedures had already adapted so that really when this decision came out, it didn't have as significant a functional change as I think the public may think they did….

PRENTICE: …But that said, it does codify this. Yes? Does it not? Tickets were handed out previously and we are talking about a change to city code.

LEE: Yes, tickets can under certain circumstances be handed out still if there is shelter space available and people aren't availing themselves of it. Having said that, as a procedural matter, we had already codified as a practice inside our department that change. So if the question is for the day to day for the men and women, the way they're approaching the issues that revolve around criminal conduct on the homeless population hasn't really significantly changed our approach as a department from what we already had adapted to as this litigation started to move forward.

PRENTICE: And these conversations with these men and women…they evolve. I have to assume they hopefully improve. Yes?

LEE: I think that that would be fair. I think that policing is a profession and any professional should always be concerned at looking at how they can improve their service delivery to all the segments that they deliver services to. And so much as I'm sure you are constantly striving to figure out how you can deliver a better radio show product, as an example, we're constantly looking to figure out how we can deliver a better policing product to all the communities we serve.

PRENTICE: Chief, I've got to guess that you're settling into your job. How are you and your family settling into Boise?

LEE: Well, other than the unique challenges that a pandemic presents to getting connected to the community, I think and I'm so happy to be able to play such a critical role as this community continues to grow. And I can help protect and keep strong some of those core values as we move into sort of the next evolution of this community.

PRENTICE: He is Ryan Lee, Chief of Police for the city of Boise. Chief, thank you very much for giving us some time today.

LEE: Thank you, sir. Take care.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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