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McLean said union concerns & aftermath of KTVB report led her to ask for Lee’s resignation: ‘I knew the chief was struggling’

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Boise Mayor Lauren McLean said the city had been working to improve the performance of police chief Ryan Lee for months leading up to her decision to ask him to resign late last month.

The mayor sat down with BoiseDev for more than an hour, answering a large number of detailed questions on the events surrounding Lee’s exit from the city and the steps the city took in the months leading up to his resignation.

McLean hired Lee in June of 2020 after a months-long process that started during the tail end of Mayor Dave Bieter’s administration and was ultimately reshaped by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Idaho. The city announced Lee’s hiring less than two weeks after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota – setting off a series of nationwide events that called new attention to policing practices. Lee came to Boise from the Portland Police Bureau in Oregon.

His first summer was marked by protests at Boise City Hall that led to clashes and arrests.

In November of 2021, during a routine early-morning briefing with officers, Lee held an apparently impromptu demonstration of neck holds. According to an Idaho State Police investigation, Lee asked Sgt. Kirk Rush to come to the front of the room and demonstrated two holds. The ISP report portrays differing views of what happened, as BoiseDev’s Gretchen Parsons detailed last month, but the report made clear that the sequence of events made a number of witnesses – members of the police department – feel uncomfortable.

Several days later, Rush sought medical attention for injuries to his neck. Rush made a formal complaint to human resources about the incident and ultimately filed a tort claim against the City of Boise that said Rush’s injuries were so extensive that he had surgery several months later.

Complaints against Lee build

Ryan Lee Boise
Boise Police Chief Ryan Lee in 2020. Photo: Brian Myrick/Idaho Press

With the interaction between Lee and Rush percolating in the background throughout the spring and summer months of this year, the city started to take in a series of complaints against Lee from other officers.

Then, on the evening of Thursday, September 22nd, KTVB reporter Alexandra Duggan posted an extensive report that included both named and anonymous sources within the department that described low morale within the ranks. It also brought to light a memo from Office of Police Accountability director Jesus Jara that suggested action steps, including hiring an outside party to investigate and putting Lee on leave.

BoiseDev has not been able to obtain the memo independently, but McLean verified its authenticity.

City of Boise spokesperson Maria Weeg later confirmed that the OPA “sent an email on April 5th purportedly to the individuals involved in the OPA intake process.” Weeg said the email had an attached memo.

The ordinance establishing the OPA, enacted last year, says the office will “only release confidential information, materials and reports related to complaints, inquiries and critical incidents” to the chief of police, the mayor, the city council, or as required by other laws.

The memo, as posted by KTVB, says “the OPA office met with nine individuals and conducted an intake of their complaints,” and says a binder included the complaints. The memo included several recommendations, including that Lee be put on leave and that the city contract an outside investigator to investigate the complaints.

McLean says it is her understanding that that was the extent of Jara’s actions before writing the memo and that no other investigative steps took place.

Outside review begins

Jesus Jara. Courtesy City of Boise

McLean said the April 5th memo from Jara to Washburn prompted the city to take his recommendation of an outside party to review the nine allegations but said the recommendation to put Lee on leave was “outside the authorization” of the ordinance establishing the OPA.

McLean confirmed she never put Lee on paid leave until asking for his resignation late last month.

The binder that accompanied the memo included specifics of the complaints. BoiseDev has asked for the memo and the complaints under Idaho’s Public Records Act, but the city has not yet responded, and Idaho Code provides five more working days to fulfill or deny the request.

“I didn’t like what I saw in the binder of complaints,” she said, referring to the substance of the allegations. “There were things of concern in there.”

She said the city “immediately” asked a third party to review the complaints – using a law firm the city had on retainer to do reviews of police matters. The city didn’t ask the firm to decide if the allegations were true but instead to presume that they were all true to make recommendations.

“We asked them to review. ‘If you take these things at face value truth, do a review and tell us if any crimes have been committed, policies have been violated or steps that need to be taken.'”

She said that the review took about a week.

“We wanted it quickly because we knew we wanted to take more steps.”

McLean said time was of the essence because if they needed to take action, they did not want to delay.

Lee’s leadership and department accountability

Ryan Lee testifies at a hearing at Boise City Hall this spring. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

“What I was told in that summary was that no crimes had been committed, no policies had been violated. However, there was a need for leadership and management style support and intervention.”

She said the firm also told the city that it needed to put policies in place to “hold leadership at various levels within the department accountable.”

She said she took the recommendations and “set out to do both of those things.”

“We directed… the chief to work on policies within the department. I had a conversation with the chief and (Washburn) and offered change management support, leadership support. We started having those conversations about the importance of leading rather than managing and the style that was necessary based on the recommendations from that summary from the attorneys.”

McLean said that, at the time, there “was a path to correction” for Lee. But when she spoke with the union on the morning of September 23rd, it changed her thinking.

“What I didn’t know, until I spoke with the union, was how much other people were trying to help as well.”

“I believed that Ryan struggled in communication style and leadership style,” McLean said. “I know that there were nine complaints filed in an office of 400-some people. I also know that these jobs are really tough. And we (have to) make sure that our frontline officers and employees feel cared for and safe in the work environment. “

She said that her discussions with the union, as well as rank and file officers was that there “was a growing frustration with his leadership and communication style.”

The day after

Screenshot of KTVB’s reporting on Lee. Courtesy KTVB

McLean said KTVB’s reporting led to a quick set of events that led her to ask for Lee to resign the next day. McLean said she read the KTVB report Thursday evening and had an initial conversation with Lee, who she said also had read it.

The next morning, the Boise Police Union reached out to McLean for a meeting.

“I knew that the chief was struggling,” McLean said. “I had been taking management action, and the chief’s supervisor (Mayor’s Chief of Staff Courtney Washburn) had been working with him from a change management and leadership perspective, and we knew that needed work.”

“The union reached out, wanting to have a conversation, and I wanted to have a conversation with them too. I learned that not only were we seeking to provide Ryan with the support and aid he needed… there were members of the union that were doing the exact same thing.”

Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg and President Pro Tem Holli Woodings. Courtesy City of Boise

At 1 p.m. on Friday, September 23rd, BoiseDev observed Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg and President Pro Tem Holli Woodings enter city hall for their weekly standing meeting with McLean. City spokesperson Maria Weeg told BoiseDev that McLean briefed the council leadership on the situation and her decision to ask for Lee’s resignation. She then talked to Lee and asked him to resign.

At 5:35 p.m., the city announced McLean had asked for and received Lee’s resignation.

“I assessed that information and the changing environment,” McLean said. “Ultimately, I made the decision in asking him to resign.”

She said the KTVB report changed the dynamics for Lee – both in the department and in the community. She said having the memo, as well as the accusations, become public “changed the landscape.”

“It makes the job of a leader even more difficult. We had a lot of expectations on him. I wanted him to be successful. Success isn’t just the policy reform. It’s providing officers the care they need as they go through this moment in time, being responsive to the council, and making the changes that the department needs so it could grow as the community grows.”

Process of complaints

Boise Police Department
A Boise Police Department squad car in Downtown Boise. Courtesy BPD

The KTVB report goes into extensive detail about the process the news outlet says officers went to make their complaints. BoiseDev has not been able to verify the sequence of events. KTVB says complaints went to human resources, internal affairs, and to OPA. Ultimately, the complaints made their way to KTVB.

“There’s so many places where officers can go (with complaints),’ McLean said. “It’s our desire to have… a process that really does ferret out claims, without the messiness and unpredictability of all the different places that an employee might drop in to make a complaining.”

She said the mayor’s office and city council are engaged in how that can be improved. KTVB reported officers said HR told them they couldn’t investigate and that complaints should go to internal affairs. The officers cited by KTVB said they felt uncomfortable because IA reports to the chief. McLean said the recommendations to put Lee on leave were outside the OPA’s authorization.

If KTVB’s reporting is correct that officers were told not to go to HR, and IA reports to the chief, and as McLean says, OPA doesn’t have jurisdiction to make recommendations – how do officers make complaints about the leader of the department?

McLean said policy adjustments need to be made to ensure offices “have certainty” on where to go and that there’s a “singular process in place.” She said she wants to hear from the department to help inform policy changes to improve this process in the future.

“I’ve directed staff to do an anonymous assessment in the department to get a sense of what employees need, how they’re feeling about where we’re at, what works, and what doesn’t.

She said she didn’t want to make changes without having a fuller sense of the department’s feelings and attitudes.

“Before we say ‘well, these are the things we’re going to change,’… I would prefer to really understand what’s happening in the department and how our employees are feeling.”

Negotiations

Boise Police union negotiations this summer. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

The events of the last several weeks happened while the city is working to negotiate a contract with the Boise Police union. BoiseDev has reviewed several negotiation meetings, and the two sides have been in agreement on many points – especially compared to negotiations with the fire union, which recently went to mediation.

McLean said in light of the chief being asked to resign, the negotiations have been put on hold for now, at the mutual agreement of both sides.

“As I’m in conversation with the union about what their members need, because we want to make sure that our employees, just as we do any other department, are cared for and feel supported and valued. “

A new chief

Boise Mayor Lauren McLean
Boise Mayor Lauren McLean answers questions about the Future of Downtown Boise. Photo: Eric Turner/Special to BoiseDev

For now, the department is being led by retired officer Ron Winegar. But McLean will again be tasked with finding a new leader for the force.

“I’d say it’s a tall order. Around the country, we see that the tenure of police chiefs has dropped… because it’s a tough job.”

McLean said the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic during Lee’s selection process stripped away much of the public engagement process.

“We’d intended to have a community session where the finalists had the opportunity to meet the public. I only bring that up because the process I envision is a community engagement process moving forward. I want to hear from both the department and the public before we put that job out. What is it that our rank-and-file officers and frontline folks who are working hard every day need? “

She said she also needs a leader in the position, and she and the council want to hear from the public.

She said the chief role is a “tough job.”

“We, the community, needs and deserves someone that is responsive to the desires of the community. And that means responsive to council and also someone that our officers need and is able to lead them through this change in a way that allows everyone to feel successful.”

Don Day - BoiseDev Editor & Founder
Don Day - BoiseDev Editor & Founder
Don is the founder and publisher of BoiseDev. He is a National Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Stanford University John S. Knight Fellow. Contact him at [email protected].

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