Ian Max Stevenson, Alex Brizee
The Idaho Statesman
An investigation into an incident between Boise Police Chief Ryan Lee and a sergeant on the force concluded that there was evidence the chief committed a felony crime, but not enough to prove it.
A county prosecutor’s office recommended no criminal charges against Lee, who was accused of seriously injuring a high-ranking officer. But new records obtained by the Idaho Statesman showed the prosecutor who investigated said there was probable cause to support a criminal charge of felony battery.
He just wasn’t sure the state could prove the offense “beyond a reasonable doubt,” according to a letter obtained by the Statesman.
“This decision was not reached lightly nor without angst, as it truly is a close call,” Clearwater County Prosecuting Attorney Clayne Tyler wrote in a letter to the Idaho State Police, Mayor Lauren McLean and Ada County Prosecutor Jan Bennetts.
“I will note that this was a very difficult decision,” Tyler wrote, noting that he would reopen the case if further evidence becomes available.
Tyler’s decision was announced by the state police in a Tuesday news release. The Statesman obtained the letter Wednesday.
The letter also describes an incident in Portland with Lee “involving a violence with a co-worker,” and said Lee bragged about his prior use of force and had a habit of asking officers whether they were going to file workers’ compensation claims after training sessions.
Haley Williams, a spokesperson for the department, declined to comment and denied the Statesman’s requests to interview Lee.
“Any information that is available through the public records process is what is available,” she told the Statesman.
Some officers say ‘excessive level of force’ used
The Clearwater County investigation pertained to an incident in October of last year when, during a staff meeting, Lee’s attorney said Lee demonstrated two types of holds on a sergeant, Kirk Rush. Rush in a tort claim accused Lee of breaking his neck and seriously injuring him.
On Oct. 12, Lee demonstrated neck restraints on Rush during a morning staff meeting to introduce the department’s new deputy chief, according to Tyler’s letter. First, he grabbed Rush by the neck “to be able to manipulate his body position,” and second he “put one hand on his forehead and pull(ed) his head back and down.”
Other than Lee, no officers in the room were familiar with the second technique, and Rush was not specifically warned about “what was going to happen,” Tyler’s letter said.
State police conducted an investigation into the incident, and Bennetts referred a prosecutorial review to the Clearwater County attorney to avoid a conflict of interest.
Misdemeanor or felony battery charges require finding beyond a reasonable doubt that a person unlawfully used force or violence, the letter said. If the victim suffers “great bodily injury,” the crime can be elevated to a felony aggravated battery.
For the state to determine such a charge, the force used must be unlawful, meaning that it may not have been in self-defense, must have been deliberate and against the victim’s consent, Tyler wrote. It is not a requirement that the perpetrator intended to harm the victim.
In his review, Tyler found that “it was reasonable to assume” Rush knew there was going to be a demonstration, and that there would be physical contact. But the amount of force used was unclear.
Many of the officers who were at the staff meeting told investigators there was an “excessive level of force.” Lee, the department’s deputy chief, Tammany Brooks, and other officers said “the use of force was minimal at best, or that nothing was seen which they considered out of line.”
A medical examination of Rush’s injuries was inconclusive about the amount of force used.
“While both doctors who were interviewed concede that significant force as described by Sgt. (Rush) could clearly have caused the injury, and perhaps was more likely than not to have caused the injury, it is possible for this type of injury to manifest with slight force or at times even without any identifiable traumatic event at all,” Tyler’s letter said.
“ ’More likely than not,’ for me, isn’t sufficient” to bring charges, Tyler wrote. “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.”
Idaho State Police interview over 20 people
State police interviewed over 20 people throughout January — including Rush and Lee — about their perspectives of what occurred during the morning meeting, according to 72 pages worth of police narratives that the Statesman obtained through a records request. The names of the officers were redacted by state police.
Rush, in an interview with state police, said he didn’t volunteer to participate in the demonstration and felt it was “an order from a superior officer.” He said that following the incident, Lee looked at Rush and asked him “in a very condescending and mocking way” if Rush was going to fill out an on-duty injury form. Lee in his interview with state police denied making the comment.
Rush told state police that he waited until Oct. 15 to turn in an injury form because he didn’t want to notify the chief.
“(Rush) is also worried about what kind of retaliation the chief could take against him,” Idaho State Police Lt. Clint Skinner wrote in his report. “He feels like it is his obligation as a supervisor to step up and talk about this. If this is the way we are going to operate in this department, who is next?”
Lee, however, told state police during his interview that he asked Rush if he could help demonstrate a few things, according to the narrative. He said he was “very clear” about what would happen as he explained and demonstrated the maneuvers to both Rush and everyone else in the room.
Lee said he put his hands on the back of Rush’s neck, which caused Rush to lean forward, and that he and Rush were facing each other during the hold, which he called a “clinch” or “tie.”
Multiple Boise cops told state police the demonstration was uncomfortable to watch. One officer said “he feels very fortunate that it wasn’t him that was asked to be the person being demonstrated on, and that it was very uncomfortable.”
Others said they had known of similar instances involving Lee. In July 2021, a Boise officer said he was doing a training exercise with Lee, who then “jammed him on the mat” and prompted the officer to let out a verbal grunt, the documents said. The officer also said Lee asked him passive-aggressively if he was going to fill out an injury form.
The same officer said he heard Lee make the same comment to another officer and called it his “go-to line.” He told state police he’s heard Lee make that comment at least three times.
“He doesn’t believe the chief intends to hurt anyone but is aggressive in training scenarios,” the documents said. The officer said he believes the incident involving Rush was “unorthodox” and “ highly inappropriate.”
Lee’s behavior ‘indicates aggressiveness’
Tyler’s letter describes Lee “bragging about the number of hands-on use of force events he engaged in while at the city of Portland.”
Before McLean hired Lee in 2020, he was the assistant police chief in Portland, and worked there for nearly 20 years, according to a news release.
“He had a habit of condescendingly asking people if they were going to file a workers’ compensation claim form after particularly forceful training exercises,” the letter said.
Lee made the same comment to Rush after the sergeant “appeared shaken while returning to his seat,” according to the letter.
Lee was also “involved in a prior incident in Portland involving a violence with a co-worker,” the letter said. It did not provide other details about the incident.
It is unclear whether Lee has faced internal discipline for the incident from the department or the city. Rush is still employed with the police force.
Williams referred the Statesman to the city of Boise for any questions related to an internal investigation into Lee. A spokesperson for the city declined to comment.