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'What was the communication?': Former Boise Office of Police Oversight director has questions after Lee resignation

Natalie Camacho Mendoza said more often than not, HR would open a parallel investigation with her former office, the Boise Office of Police Oversight.

BOISE, Idaho — Former Office of Police Oversight Director Natalie Camacho Mendoza read the stories in the media. She read the memo that the Office of Police Accountability sent to Boise Mayor McLean, recommending Boise Police Chief Ryan Lee go on paid leave. Mendoza had questions.

“The questions I had, after I heard about the story, was, what was the communication?” Mendoza said. “How I would have thought things would happen, is that when the officers went to HR, that HR would have opened up an investigation if they felt there were BPD policies involved.”

Mendoza first began her former position with the Office of Police Oversight in 2015. When that office changed to the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), Mendoza resigned from her position on May 31, 2021. She was in strong opposition of the change as it made the office "less independent" she said, because she felt the new office (OPA) would be more restricted to gaining "permission" to open investigations and take heed on them.

When the office changed, their goal was to create a model that increased community involvement in oversight and review of police conduct. According to previous reporting, Chief of Staff Courtney Washburn said in 2021 that the office would "have a clear process for if the complaint is associated with the chief of police or command staff of the department."

KTVB previously reported that nine officers came forward with complaints against Lee at the beginning of the year. McLean later asked Lee to resign, 24 hours after the original story was published. Lee's resignation takes effect Oct. 14, but he is now on leave until then. Ron Winegar, who recently retired as deputy chief, is currently Boise's acting police chief.

RELATED: Internal complaints and early retirements: What we know about the investigation into Boise’s police chief

Emails from an employee written earlier this year showed the employee went to Human Resources (HR) in January. The employee was concerned that HR later declined to investigate the complaints, the employee said in the emails.

The emails say that HR informed the employee earlier this year and that, upon a review of BPD policy, "the Office of Internal Affairs is responsible for investigating alleged violations of BPD policy and general city policy when there is overlap."

"If Boise City Human Resources, at the direction of City Legal, is notifying me that HR will not investigate any of the allegations and that the next course of action is to send it to BPD Internal Affairs, then I feel compelled to request that the investigation continues with them, as opposed to doing nothing at all," the email said.

It is unclear how HR came to the conclusion that there would be overlap in Boise Police Department (BPD) policy and general city policy. 

On page 430 of the Boise City Handbook, there are certain steps that employees can follow to issue complaints with HR -- in the final step, if a solution cannot be reached, HR must forward their information and responses to the Mayor for a final decision to be reached.

"Employees may contact Human Resources anytime they have a need to do so," the handbook says.

Mendoza said that often, HR would open an investigation, and her former office would do a parallel investigation with them to make sure they were separately investigating different types of policies – such as BPD policy vs. employment policy, etc.

Additionally, according to previous reporting by The Idaho Press, a tort claim filed by Sgt. Kirk Rush of BPD alleged that when he complained to HR about Lee injuring his neck during a briefing, HR declined to investigate and that the investigation was “strangely closed.”

RELATED: Boise police officer files claim against city regarding alleged incident with chief Ryan Lee

“I don't know why there wasn't an HR investigation. That is a question mark for me. I don't know the answer to that. It was not unusual for HR to begin some sort of an investigation involving the employment manual or any violations of the employment manual,” Mendoza said.

It is unclear if OPA communicated with HR after the nine officers filed complaints, but the officers had gone to OPA after they were told HR would not be doing an investigation to begin with, the emails said. 

KTVB reached out to Jesus Jara, the current OPA director, and he said he cannot comment on what communication happened in regards to the Lee investigation.

The officers did not feel comfortable going to Internal Affairs earlier this year because Lee oversaw the department, former Internal Affairs Captain Tom Fleming said, so they went to the Office of Police Accountability and filed complaints, prompting an investigation that later resulted in the memo that recommended the former chief go on leave while further investigation is pursued.

McLean told KTVB in a previous interview that a third-party investigation later determined there to be no policy violations, so leave was not an option.

For context, unacceptable conduct in the city handbook includes physical violence, speech or conduct deemed rude, disrespectful, irresponsible, or otherwise inappropriate including, but not limited to, the use of profane, indecent, or abusive language when acting as or identified as a city employee; conduct or speech that violates commonly accepted standards of a professional workplace and that, under present circumstances, has no redeeming social value; attempting to intimidate or bully others; exhibiting aggressive, antagonistic, or retaliatory behavior toward city employees; and more.

In addition to the investigation into the complaints against Lee, he was never placed on leave during a criminal investigation into him allegedly injuring Rush's neck during that briefing, which later resulted in no charges from the Clearwater County Prosecutor's Office for lack of probable cause.

RELATED: No criminal charges for Boise Police Chief Lee following ISP investigation

“What is the message you are sending to your community, that you have an officer that is being investigated for a crime?” Mendoza said. “What is your purpose as an organization, when you’re supposed to be about public safety?...Putting them on leave at least puts (the community) on notice that this is serious and we are looking into whether there’s any substance to it.”

Mendoza said it’s hard for her to understand why the recommendation to put Lee on leave in the memo was not followed, even if there was a third-party investigation that found no policy violation.

“When I made a recommendation to command staff, they gave it weight,” Mendoza said. 

She said that former BPD Chief Bill Bones and former Boise Mayor Dave Bieter would always listen to her office and take her recommendations seriously. They didn’t always agree, Mendoza said, but more often than not, there was constant communication with them and she was always aware of what was going on inside the department.

To put officers on leave while an investigation is opened into them, is “standard,” Mendoza said, especially when it’s a criminal investigation.

“Ultimately, the chief reports to the mayor,” she said.

When it comes to a third-party, Mendoza said that usually they are there to review the legalities of an investigation and make sure the original investigation was done right – not to “change” or “recommend” something based on their own findings, unless it comes into legal question.

"It’s not unusual to have an outside person review our findings in critical incidents, but their review was not to change our findings. Their review was only to make sure that we were in compliance with the law in any agreements we had with the police department on how we went about doing investigations," Mendoza said.

It’s unclear who the third-party was and what their exact conclusions were, just that their findings resulted in the chief continuing to work without going on paid leave, according to McLean.

Mendoza said that it's possible for the chief to be investigated – it just depends what it is and what for. There is a way to actually evaluate and investigate command staff members, she said. 

“Even Chief Lee and I had conversations about that,” Mendoza said. “If it’s employment policy that’s been violated, HR does that investigation, and then they make the recommendation for some kind of remedy or repercussion, if you will."

Former officers told KTVB they were never interviewed again by a third-party.

Mendoza said that surprises her – if the third-party did more than reviewing legal questions, and did their own separate investigation, they should have interviewed all the officers that OPA did.

Boise City Council members Luci Willits and Jimmy Hallyburton told KTVB previously that the investigation and resignation came as a surprise, but that in the midst of all of it, the council was continuing to look into what sort of policies need to be changed, if anything.

Willits said she was never informed that the police chief was going to resign that day on Sept. 23 – just that she “got a news alert” on her phone, immediately went to her city email, and discovered it was true.

“It hadn’t been a conversation,” Willits said. “The media report came out one day and basically he was gone the next. Obviously we had a lot of questions. How did this happen? What were the reasons for getting some solid information that was from the mayor's office versus a media outlet?”

According to Willits, Boise City Council has not yet seen the OPA report or investigation, but they have requested to see it and plan on later changing policies if need be.

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