March 29, 2009 in Opinion

Smart Bombs

Arrested development
By The Spokesman-Review

After 10 years, Boise appears generally happy to have a police ombudsman, according to an article in Wednesday’s Idaho Statesman. Citizen complaints have diminished each year. The number of cases handled by the watchdog has dropped by half.

The city of Boise hired Pierce Murphy a decade ago in the wake of public concern over eight people being killed in police shootings over a 17-month span. Community leaders seem to agree that the relationship between the police department and the general public has improved. A trip to the ombudsman’s Web site ( helps explain why. There, you’ll find detailed annual reports on police performance and the reviews conducted by the four-person ombudsman’s office. Police officers, take note: Murphy more often supports than criticizes officer actions. There are still disagreements, of course, but Murphy has been able to attain a level of trust.

One of the key differences between the newly created Spokane position and Boise’s is term limits. Spokane’s job offers a three-year stint, with the possibility of being retained for another three years. Then the city must hire a new person. If that were the case in Boise, the city would’ve released Murphy four years ago, even though he was doing admirable work. Walking out the door with him would be invaluable experience and institutional memory. His replacement would then need to retrace the steps Murphy took to gain knowledge of police procedures and criminal law. It would take a few years to gain the same level of trust and respect among officers and the public.

Convinced that a fresh set of eyes is preferable to expertise, Spokane has chosen term limits. If Boise is an accurate barometer, it’s a mistake.

See-through government. The city of Spokane has made the right move in making the removal of the police ombudsman a public process. Early on, there were concerns that it would be an “at will” position, meaning the mayor could fire the ombudsman without explanation. That won’t be the case.

The job description for the position notes that dismissal would require a public vote requiring five of seven City Council members to agree. The case for removal would have to be based on “misconduct, inefficiency, incompetence, inability or failure to perform the duties of the office or negligence in the performance of such duties.”

End of an era. Speaking of institutional memory, veteran reporters Karen Dorn Steele and Bill Morlin have chosen to leave The Spokesman-Review. During their illustrious careers, both have provided invaluable reporting on a variety of controversies. It’s a huge blow to oversight.

Good luck to them, but we’ll need it more.

Smart Bombs is written by Associate Editor Gary Crooks and appears Wednesdays and Sundays on the Opinion page. Crooks can be reached at or at (509) 459-5026.

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