What Can We Learn From the Dismissal of a Police Chief?
One of my close colleagues, Mike Masterson, retired from the Madison PD and served a decade as the Chief of Police in Boise, ID. From all accounts, he had a stellar, community-oriented career. At his retirement, one of his assistants, Bill Bones, took over and led the department from 2015, until his retirement in 2019. Chief Masterson was then called back to duty and served until a new chief recruited and hired.
In 2020, Ryan Lee, a deputy chief from Portland, Oregon was appointed Chief of Police by Mayor Lauren McClean. Two years later he was gone. What happened?
First of all, Lee was accused of breaking a fellow officers neck during a staff meeting in which he was demonstrating a neck restraint technique. This event came to be the subject of a criminal investigation. The county prosecutor called Lee’s actions a “close call” as to whether he would be criminally charged.
Then nine officers filed complaints against Lee. That prompted a review by the Office of Police Accountability, which is a city agency. The subsequent investigation found there was no violation of city or police policy,
++ Here’s an abbreviated timeline of events during Lee’s tenure:
June 9, 2020: Boise City Council unanimously confirms Ryan Lee as the new Boise chief of police. Mayor McLean says Lee is the “perfect choice” for the city.
July 15, 2020: Two weeks into his new role, Lee sets transparency, policy, discipline and training goals. He also proposes plans to create a dashboard documenting how often officers use force.
July 20, 2020: Ahead of what’s expected to be a large Black Lives Matter protest and counterprotest, Lee promises a “substantial and robust” police presence and requests that groups self-police against individuals who infiltrate their ranks in order to provoke, intimidate and start problems. (Lee came to Boise with a strong background in handling public protests.)
March 20, 2021: Locals gather at the Idaho Capitol for a vigil decrying violence and racism against Asian Americans in response to hate shootings in Atlanta. Lee (who is of Asian descent) and Mayor McLean hold a meeting with more than 150 members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
June 27, 2021: Boise police shoot Mohamud Hassan Mkoma, a member of the Somali Bantu refugee community, who is hospitalized for months. Mkoma’s family and community demand Boise police show body-cam footage.
Oct. 12, 2021: Lee injures a subordinate officer during a neck restraint demonstration during a staff meeting.
April 5, 2022: The officer, Sgt. Kirk Rush files a tort claim against Lee and the city of Boise. Rush alleges that Lee “caused serious and significant injuries” to him.
April 5, 2022: Office of Police Accountability sends a memo to Mayor McLean and Mayor’s Chief of Staff recommending that Lee be placed on paid administrative leave after nine officers file complaints against him.
May, 9, 2022: Instead, the mayor’s office had an outside counsel review the allegations against Lee. They determined there were no policy violations.
Aug. 24, 2022: Lee writes a guest opinion in the Idaho Statesman after announcing new hiring criteria for the department which would broaden the candidate pool . It creates a stir. Lee allegedly called the current hiring process “racist.”
Aug. 31, 2022: Idaho State Police announce Lee will not be criminally charged for allegedly breaking a lower-ranking officer’s neck during an unplanned neck restraint demonstration.
Sept. 1, 2022: The Statesman newspaper obtains a letter written by the County Prosecutor that states there was evidence Lee committed a crime by allegedly breaking Rush’s neck, but not “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Sept. 23, 2022: Just hours before the city of Boise announces Lee will be resigning, Mayor McLean tells the Statesman she had “conversations about management” at the department. Later, the city announces Lee will resign at the request of McLean.
[As if this was not enough for the city, a stunning revelation is made that a recently retired police captain who had leveled charges against Lee belonged to a racist organization and had written racist diatribes under a pseudonym. In response, former chief Masterson condemns the actions of the retired captain. He urges the public not to judge all Boise officers by his actions.]
What Can Be Learned From These Events?
As a person well-versed in organizational change and its dangers, improving police, unionization, the subculture of policing, all this seems very, very familiar. However, certain aspects of Lee’s management style call into question his ability to lead. It is one thing to be an assistant chief of police — another to be the chief of police.
The leadership style and behavior of a top commander in any organization matters and can deeply affect the performance of even the best-staffed organization. How a person goes about leading others can can cast light or darkness in an organization. I think it is safe to say that these events could have been handled better from beginning to end.
Lee leadership style appears questionable. How was he vetted and interviewed? Was there no indication of how he would perform given his time in Portland? Was there no intensive background investigation and interview of his subordinates in Portland? Some more questions…
- How did an accomplished martial artist (Lee allegedly holds a 4th degree black belt in Judo) make such a mistake as to severely a person during a demonstration? (As a former police trainer myself, I would always ask for a volunteer from the ranks. I can assure you that if I had injured an officer in such a setting I most certainly would deeply apologize and make amends. Instead, Lee called mocked him and told him to file a Worker’s Compensation Claim. One of the reports stated that Lee and the officer had a prior disagreement on the use of police dogs. The officer is said to have supervised the canine unit.
- There are allegations that Lee called subordinate officers names like “huckaback” (aka “hillbilly”), “idiot,” and “asshat” (a person with his head up his ass!). That he hired friends outside the department, and told those who disagreed with him to file for retirement.
- Lee seemingly exhibited a strong authoritarian leadership style that was not in step with leadership expectations in the department. Lee most likely did not understand department culture nor the importance of building strong relationships with community and departmental leaders.
- As the person who supervised the Chief of Police, what, specifically, did the Mayor do to help improve Lee’s performance when problems arose? (Note: there are no known methods to improve leader effectiveness while the leader is still leading! This especially applies to overly authoritarian behavior and an unwillingness to listen and learn from others.)
I offer some help…
+ Read my Twelve Principles of Quality Leadership and how they might have been used during the selection process in Boise and a current article from a BJA Executive session on the important role of leadership in police agencies.
+ Still wondering about why it is so important have an educated, well-trained, relational leader with strong EQ (Emotional Intelligence)?
- Leaders today must practice the “Golden Rule,” (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.)
- They must lead by being a “Servant Leader,” (It begins with the urge to serve others above self.)
- They must deeply realize their number one job as a leader is to take care of (and grow) the men and women they are privileged to lead!
- Today’s leaders must connect, connect, and connect… inside and outside their organization.
- If this is not understood, stay in the ranks until it is — because you will harm those who have to depend on you.