For the last few months, the Boise Police Department has been a ship in search of a safe port: In October, former Chief Bill Bones retired, and was succeeded by two interim top cops, Mike Masterson and Ron Winegar.
On Wednesday, July 1, Boise's wait for a more permanent police chief will end when Ryan Lee, now an assistant chief with the Portland Police Bureau, starts the job full-time, bringing his long experience with community policing with him.
"I've watched cities, particularly Portland and Seattle—I've seen them grow rapidly, and the ability for it feeling like your home, your town, fades ... and it's my desire to make this still feel like the Boise you all know and love," Lee said during a June 10 virtual roundtable with the media.
A 20-year veteran of the PPB, Lee has a storied resume. Early in his career, he was a key whistleblower in the case of an assault on the part of two off-duty officers. That incident put so much heat on Lee that he was transferred to another precinct for his safety.
He has since gained international recognition as an expert in crowd control, and particularly protest management. He established a "protest liaison," whose job is to communicate with the leaders of protest groups and encourage them to self-regulate their behavior, removing protesters more interested in violence or illegal activities than First Amendment expression.
More recently, however, the PPB garnered negative headlines when white supremacists squared off against Antifa and other left-leaning groups in the streets of Portland following a white supremacist rally that led to street fighting in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. As events in Portland and the so-called Patriot Prayer movement unfolded, Willamette Week reported that significant police bias may have led to a disproportionate number of leftist counter-protesters being arrested, with at least one PPB lieutenant saying right-wing protesters were "much more mainstream."
That prompted the Portland Tribute to ask Lee, who was himself a lieutenant at the time, if he was the lieutenant in question. Lee denied that he was, but that hasn't shielded him from controversy. Later, text messages surfaced between his chosen successor at the PPB in charge of protest response and Joey Gibson, leader of Patriot Prayer, that have led to accusations that PPB was unprofessional in its communications with right-wing activists.
The incoming chief also has a background in community partnerships, and in the past has mentored at-risk youths. Still employed by PPB, he said he has his work cut out for him as he transitions to his new responsibilities in Boise, but meeting with community leaders and members of the media are among his first priorities as he establishes himself.
Lee will take the helm at a moment of dramatic change and controversy surrounding law enforcement on another front. The police killing of George Floyd on March 25 sparked national and international outrage over police brutality, particularly regarding African Americans; and there have been subsequent calls for communities to divest themselves of their police departments.
In Boise, nightly protests and demonstrations against police brutality have taken place at the Idaho State Capitol, where protesters have faced police and counter-protesters.
Protesters have called for divestment from police services, but Mayor Lauren McLean, in introducing Lee, said she supports the current trajectory of the Boise Police Department. Saying that "public safety is my first priority," she added that the current moment "is the perfect time when we must review policies and make sure we can do everything we can as a city and a department to make sure everyone remains safe."
"That means working with our community and our police department as they work to keep our residents safe," she said.
Lee was more explicit in his tack toward calls to defund police departments, telling reporters that though he understands the anger surrounding the issue, "I think it's a challenge to any modern city" to pursue such an agenda, given what he called the "driving factors behind crime in the United States"—poverty and addiction. He said he'd prefer to maintain the department's course toward a community policing model, and touted the merits of that approach.
"Community policing is very successful in driving crime rates and other things down," he said. "It's very expensive, and we need adequate funding to train officers."