BOISE, Idaho — It’s no secret the Treasure Valley is growing. The increase in population is impacting our roads, our schools, our housing market, and our police force.
It’s one of the first things Chief Ryan Lee noticed when he joined the Boise Police Department from Portland last July.
“I think one of the first things that was very obvious was the sizing of the department relative to the growth of the city,” Chief Lee said. “We were still operating with the idea that we could have a much smaller police force.”
Chief Lee says the national recommended average is to have two police officers per 1,000 citizens in the city. “The national average is 2.4, and we’re at 1.26 because of the growth,” Lee said.
GROWING THE DEPARTMENT
To keep up with the population, the City of Boise is proposing to add more than a dozen new positions to the police department.
The proposed budget for 2022 outlines the new jobs: seven patrol officers to help respond to the growing number of 911 calls, one motorcycle traffic officer, one additional officer to be added to the narcotics division, two neighborhood contact officers, two officers dedicated to enhancing Intelligence-Led Policing, and one evidence analyst for the crime lab.
The police department is the largest expense for the city. 2022’s budget boosts its funding by more than six million dollars, an 8.9% increase, to a total of $77,502,676.
DEFUNDING THE POLICE?
In Boise, police are getting a budget boost while some cities across the country are answering calls to ‘defund the police' by reallocating portions of their budget to community programs.
“I think it’s a worthy conversation to have about, ‘what is the infrastructure to be able to provide services? Are police really the best service to connect for certain types of situations?’” Chief Lee said. “But I think in a lot of places in the United States, what’s playing out is really sort of a false dilemma that you have to take money from the police to fund this, and I don’t think that’s really the case.”
During Lee’s first month on the job last summer, several protests sparked in Boise centered around defunding and defending the police, some scenarios even turning violent. Of course, it was Lee's officers tasked with keeping the peace.
“We are politically neutral when we’re the police,” Lee said. “We’re there to help ensure everybody’s constitutionally protected rights to the first amendment. Whether I agree, disagree, or any other officer does, is not relevant to whatever the dialogue may be that’s out there.”
A FOCUS ON COMMUNITY POLICING
Moving forward, one of Lee’s priorities for the department is the continued focus on “community policing” by interacting with citizens and learning more about the root causes of crime before it happens.
“Whether that’s the shopkeeper or a grandma who’s lived in the neighborhood a long time,” Lee said. “We want to have a meaningful connection with those people we serve.”
Lee touted the success of the already existing Refugee Liason program as a perfect example. "That's modeled by departments three of four times our size," Lee said. "We've got an incredible amount of work they're already done, we need to build upon that foundation and really double down on community policing."
Before moving to the City of Trees, Lee worked in Portland for 20 years. As that city grew, he watched the police department prioritize resources to patrol officers responding to emergency calls.
“And we became focused on that without recognizing the need to connect with the community, understand how they wanted to be policed, what were the primary issues? It wasn’t that we stopped doing that, but we weren’t able to do it as much, and long term, it began to damage that connection with the community,” Lee said. “I don’t want to see anything like that happen again here in Boise.”
One recent move to place officers in a critical area of downtown Boise is a new police substation, allowing officers to engage with Boiseans surrounding city parks and homeless shelters who may need help connecting with community resources.
The station is primarily utilized by bicycle officers who can easily travel through the park system via the greenbelt in a “much more effective way” than patrol officers would, Lee says.
A lot of the calls officers respond to every day include an individual in crisis, a trend Lee says is seen nationwide.
In Boise, those officers who respond are now trained to handle a number of scenarios that may come their way.
The department saved money on overtime costs in 2020 since they didn’t have to staff officers for large events or festivals that were canceled because of COVID-19. Instead, they used some of that money to deliver 40 hours of crisis intervention training to each sworn officer of the department.
“I think really the emphasis on de-escalation, and recognition of various different mental health conditions,” Lee recalled as some of the most valuable lessons. “As well as understanding that most people when they call the police are — even if momentarily in some form of crisis — they are not having the best moment of their life, and those skills are beneficial in any interaction.”
But it’s not just civilians susceptible to impacts on their mental health.
Officers routinely respond to severely unsettling situations that can stick with them for days, weeks, or even years.
“I would venture to say, it’s not just more than what the average person would see in their work week, an average officer five years on the job has seen more than most people would see in a lifetime,” Lee said.
That’s why part of the expansion for the Training, Education and Development Division is a Wellness program.
“As a matter of fact I believe one of my sergeants is right now, as we speak, delivering a wellness course to the officers talking about a variety of different things based off a survey of what concerned them,” Lee said. “Everything from nutrition to mental health opportunities, the benefits of exercise, how to manage a proper sleep cycle.”