BOISE, Idaho — This article was originally published by Margaret Carmel in BoiseDev.
Boise Police Chief Ryan Lee earned no criminal charges stemming from an alleged assault on a subordinate officer last fall, but a North Idaho prosecuting attorney called it “a close call.”
As first reported by the Idaho Statesman, Clearwater County Prosecutor E. Clayne Tyler wrote a letter to Ada County Prosector Jan Bennetts, Mayor Lauren McLean and two high-ranking officers at the Idaho State Police saying there was evidence Lee committed felony battery. But, he said the state’s case would fall apart because there wasn’t enough evidence to prove this “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the standard for criminal charges.
This stems from an incident in October 2021 where BPD Sgt. Kirk Rush alleges Lee severely injured his neck while demonstrating a series of two different neck holds on him during a training briefing. Idaho State Police opened an investigation into Lee early this year. Lee continued in his role as chief during the probe.
Tyler wrote in his letter that he took the investigation “as far as possible,” but he said if new evidence surfaces he would be willing to take a second look.
“I will note that this was a very difficult decision, as I feel probable cause exists to support a felony criminal charge of aggravated battery, but have reservations as to the State’s ability to prove the offense beyond a reasonable doubt,” he wrote. “However, there is a five-year statute of limitations for an aggravated battery charge. In the event additional information arises, please contact me and I will re-open the case.”
City of Boise spokesperson Maria Weeg declined to comment if Lee was under investigation internally for his conduct during the meeting citing the city’s policy of not commenting on personnel issues.
“We’re glad to see this investigation come to a close,” Weeg wrote to BoiseDev in a text message, mirroring her comment about the lack of charges from Wednesday.
Accounts differ on amount of force Lee used
Tyler interviewed multiple witnesses to the briefing room incident, but various officers described the level of force differently.
The letter’s description of the October 12 briefing matched Rush’s description of the circumstances in a tort claim filed earlier this year. Lee came to the briefing room to introduce a newly hired Deputy Chief and then began talking about the lateral vascular neck restraint BPD banned its offices from using in 2020. Lee then “either asked or ordered” Rush to come up to the front of the room for a demonstration.
Then, Lee performed two neck holds on Rush, one to “manipulate his body position” by holding him by the back of the neck and a second where Lee put his hand on Rush’s forehead and pulled “his head back and down.” The letter said some officers were familiar with the first technique, but no one in the room was trained or familiar with the second one.
“It was clear that at no time was Sgt (Rush) specifically warned as to what was going to happen,” Tyler wrote in his letter.
Rush and “many other officers” provided statements reporting Lee’s actions qualified as an excessive use of force, but Tyler’s letter said “several other officers” including Lee and the newly hired deputy chief reported the use of force was “minimal at best” or nothing they saw was out of line.
‘Inconclusive’ medical review
The issue isn’t whether or not Rush “suffered great bodily injury” due to the extent of the surgery he had to have on his neck as he reported in his tort claim, but what stopped the case was Tyler’s doubts he could prove Lee acted unlawfully.
To meet the standard for unlawful use of force or violence, Tyler would have to prove that Lee wasn’t acting in self-defense, the action was deliberate and Rush didn’t consent to what happened. Tyler’s letter said that after conversations he had with use-of-force experts and after interviewing witnesses, it was “reasonable” to assume that Rush knew some sort of demonstration of a neck restraint requiring physical contact would occur.
Tyler then tried to find out how much force Lee really used on Rush during his demonstration.
He interviewed two different doctors who evaluated Rush’s injuries and they concluded that while significant force could have “clearly” caused the injury, and “perhaps more likely than not caused the injury,” it is possible that this sort of problem could arise from “slight force” or no force at all.
“Given the variances in statements and the lack of supporting medical evidence, this isn’t a case we feel comfortable proving beyond a reasonable doubt,” Tyler wrote. “This decision was not reached lightly nor without angst, as it truly is a close call.”
Letter alludes to use-of-force issues in Portland
Tyler’s letter doesn’t just cover the allegations of what Lee did in a Boise Police Department briefing room.
It also alluded to Lee being involved with a prior incident with the Portland Police Bureau involving “a violence with a coworker.” Prior to coming to Boise, Lee was Assistant Police Chief at PPB.
When describing the October 12 incident, Tyler’s letter said Lee is described as “bragging about the number of hands-on force events he engaged in” while working in Portland. He also “had a habit” of “condescendingly” asking if other officers would file a workers’ compensation claim after training exercises.
Tyler’s letter said witnesses reported Lee making the same comment while Rush “appeared shaken” as he returned to his seat after the encounter with Lee.