Boise police shooting of Somali refugee stirs memories of violence in war-torn pasts

·9 min read

Boise’s East African community is still reeling two weeks after officers with the city’s police department shot a Somali man while following up on a report that a child was in danger — a sudden and shocking reminder of the violence many within the diaspora escaped more than a decade ago as refugees from their home nations.

Mohamud Hassan Mkoma, 33, of Boise, underwent a fourth surgery Thursday and remains on a ventilator at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, according to family, in critical but stable condition. Beyond the hospital’s walls, Mkoma’s family and the wider Somali Bantu community continue to push for answers from police and city officials about why responding officers fired their weapons at the father of the 14-year-old boy he was alleged to have taken.

“I came here because I ran away from a war, and from where I was running, it caught up to me here,” Mkoma’s mother, Mchiwa Hassan, said in her native Kizigua through an interpreter. “The son that I gave birth to, they said that he’s a thief … and the boy was his own son. I don’t want to fight with anyone. All I want is peace, and I don’t want my son to be in the police custody.”

Members of the Somali community, including immediate family, met with Boise Police Chief Ryan Lee and a department refugee liaison on Wednesday, seeking more details, such as release of the 911 dispatch call and video footage from the body cameras worn by the three officers involved in the shooting.

During the two-hour meeting, three people who were present at the meeting — including Mkoma’s younger sister, Hawo Mkoma — said the group also asked for increased visitation for family at the hospital. In addition, they requested that the officer assigned to watch over Mkoma be removed as the man recovers, concerned that such surveillance will retraumatize their loved one, who they said suffers from a mental health disorder.

Lee and Detective Dustin Robinson said they would work on ensuring that Mkoma’s family is more comfortable with arrangements at the hospital, attendees said. They were told, however, that until Ada County’s Critical Incident Task Force investigation is finished — and that review could take between six and nine months — Lee is restricted in what he can say and release about the incident.

BPD spokesperson Haley Williams declined to answer a list of questions about what was discussed at the meeting between the chief and the Somali group, and whether police officers were aware that the boy reported to be at risk during the incident was Mkoma’s son. Boise police have never acknowledged that the teenager was related to Mkoma, other than stating in a news release after the shooting that the suspect they sought that Sunday night was “known to the family.”

“The details of the investigation are not always available for release while the investigation is ongoing. You are asking a lot of great questions, and we will be able to answer all of them in time,” Williams said in a short emailed statement to the Idaho Statesman.

Last week, BPD also denied a Statesman request made under the Idaho Public Records Act for the police report from the incident, citing an ongoing investigation.

Family disputes Boise police’s narrative

Boise Mayor Lauren McLean is scheduled to meet Monday with members of the Bantu community. In the meantime, she has been briefed on the incident, a city spokesperson confirmed, and the city’s independent Office of Police Oversight has already launched its own review of BPD’s only officer-involved shooting this year. That inquiry is separate from the task force’s investigation, being led by the Garden City Police Department.

Garden City received the nod to head that task force review based on a rotation, Williams said. Garden City Police Lt. Cory Stambaugh, a member of the Boise police force for nearly a dozen years — until February 2020 — previously told the Statesman in an interview that there is no timetable for the investigation to be finished.

But family members have reiterated that they believe Boise police issued a false narrative about Mkoma. They do not know who called 911 to report him, they said. They also doubt that he possessed the unknown weapon that police reported seeing while Mkoma was out driving his Dodge SUV with his eldest son on a Sunday afternoon.

Hawo Mkoma, right, and brother Mohamed Mkoma, provide more details about their sibling, Mohamud Hassan Mkoma, who was shot by Boise police on June 27.
Hawo Mkoma, right, and brother Mohamed Mkoma, provide more details about their sibling, Mohamud Hassan Mkoma, who was shot by Boise police on June 27.

“They won’t tell us anything. They just said that the child was missing,” Hawo Mkoma said in an interview. “They’re like, ‘Oh, we got the suspect, we got the child to safety, we saved him.’ I feel like they’re just making themselves the heroes.”

Boise police tell a different story. On June 27, the department issued a string of tweets that included a photo of Mkoma and of the 14-year-old boy, stating that they believed the teen could be at risk. The BPD post came just before the department planned to issue an Amber Alert, police said.

Not long after BPD posted its initial tweet about Mkoma, at about 6:25 p.m. that Sunday, police said patrol officers spotted his vehicle not far from where the teen was reportedly taken. When they tried to stop the vehicle, Mkoma sped away, according to a BPD news release. Police then deployed a chase maneuver that spun out the vehicle near the intersection of 36th Street and Eyrie Way. They said a Black child who matched the description of the missing boy was inside, and officers also saw what they believed was a weapon while trying to stop the vehicle, the release said.

Just north of Quail Hollow Golf Course, where police brought the vehicle to a stop, officers challenged the driver, Lee said at a news conference the day of the incident. Police fired at Mkoma, after “events transpired that compelled the officers to use force,” Lee said at the time. Officers Steve Martinez, Jeff Ridgeway and Aaron Hartje were later identified by the department as those involved in the shooting.

Since then, little more has been released about the incident.

Court records reveal complicated history

Mohamud Mkoma pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor domestic battery against a household member in 2015, according to Ada County court records. A six-month jail sentence was deferred as he completed two years of probation. Over that same period, he was also issued a no-contact order with the victim, who is unnamed in the online record.

A year into his probation sentence, Mkoma faced two misdemeanor assault or battery charges, as well as a probation violation. He pleaded guilty to each in exchange for a reduced sentence, serving a handful of days in jail and receiving an extended probation, court records show. He was also ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation and to stay current with his medications, according to records. He completed his probation last September.

Mkoma’s wife initially filed for divorce in early 2018 in Ada County, but records show the case was dismissed later that year. She filed the petition again this January and the couple’s marriage formally ended in May, according to the county court database.

Mkoma’s family said that he and his ex-wife shared custody of the 14-year-old. They also said that for the past two months — after the divorce was finalized — the teenager was living with his father and his uncle at an apartment complex not far from the Boise Bench. Mkoma’s mother lives in the same complex, family members said at a private Bantu community meeting last week.

“The guy wouldn’t hurt a fly at all, so it was just kind of mind-boggling how the whole thing transpired,” said Monica Pursley, a longtime neighbor of the Mkomas. “He’s a very, very quiet man. He doesn’t cause any disturbances. He walks around very quietly, and is just an elder son who looks out for his mom and his siblings.”

Protest planned after ‘mind-boggling’ events

Mkoma’s sister and younger brother refute the characterization of their elder sibling as the suspect of a crime in spite of his past legal troubles. They described him as one of several in their family who fled Somalia not long after civil war exploded in their home country in the early 1990s. They said they landed in refugee camps in neighboring Kenya. After about four years, the family was approved for relocation to Boise in the winter of 2004, they said, and most of the family has lived in the area since.

More than 760 Somali refugees have resettled since 2000 in Idaho between Boise and Twin Falls, according to the Idaho Office for Refugees. Today, roughly 300 Somalis live in Boise, a member of the Bantu community estimated, including about 200 Bantus.

Mkoma is a father of five, his sister and brother said, and speaks limited English while living with mental illness. He would never harm his son, they asserted, and they question whether police who approached their older brother tried to speak to him before drawing their weapons.

Williams, the BPD spokesperson, declined to answer a question about whether the three police officers involved in the shooting were up to date on the department’s required 40 hours of crisis intervention training.

The Bantu community had a protest for Mkoma scheduled for last Tuesday, but postponed it over worries that the event could lead to the presence of armed counterprotesters and potential altercations. But now the group is planning to hold a demonstration this Tuesday outside Boise City Hall.

“It’s a relief that we’re not alone, that the family and community backs us up and are here to support us. It’s a good feeling,” Mohamed Mkoma, the 23-year-old younger brother of the man police shot, told the Statesman.

Boise’s Black Lives Matter group went ahead with a small rally last week outside City Hall, while leaders in the Bantu community, including Mkoma’s family, met privately to decide how to move forward. The Boise BLM demonstration drew nearly two dozen counterprotesters, some holding pro-police flags and some carrying rifles, handguns and knives.

The area’s East African residents say they will have a peaceful protest Tuesday to ensure that greater Boise — including city and police officials — knows the Bantu community no longer feels the same sense of safety it had just two weeks ago. Members of the community and Mkoma’s family said they are numb over the incident and no longer trust local law enforcement.

“While we wait, we have the right to protest and tell the community the other side of the story, that it’s not the picture that was painted, that he’s a kidnapper,” Fowzia Adan, a local Somali who attended the meeting with Lee last week, told the Statesman. “He’s a father and he had visitation rights that day. And we do understand that police (have) their own protocols on what they share and what they can’t, but we have the right to tell, and we sure will next Tuesday.”