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For Seattle police chief nominee, service trumps enforcement

Kathleen O'Toole's early years as a patrol officer with the Boston PD convinced her that police work was about more than busting bad guys.
Kathleen O'Toole after her nomination as Seattle police chief

Kathleen O'Toole after her nomination as Seattle police chief Credit: Allyce Andrew

During Kathleen O'Toole's early days as a patrol officer in Boston, she raced to 911 calls, acted as a robbery decoy on the subway, delivered babies and saved lives. "I started at a point where it was police versus the community back in 1979, 1980," she says. "Very early on I realized it wasn't all about enforcement. It's more about service."

On Monday, Mayor Ed Murray chose O'Toole as his nominee for Seattle police chief. If confirmed by the City Council she would take the reins of a police force that has had no shortage of turbulence.

The department that O'Toole stands to inherit is in the depths of a federally-mandated reform process. The reforms were triggered by a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice investigation, which found a pattern of use-of-force violations. The reform process has proven to be a big undertaking for the department. It involves revised policies, a barrage of new forms, changed training regimens and computer upgrades. The reforms have also raised concerns about officer morale. According to people familiar with the department, some cops are policing less proactively, fearful that they might run afoul of the new policies.

Meanwhile, the department's top brass, known for political maneuvering, went through a musical-chairs-like reshuffling in recent months. Assistant chiefs were demoted, re-promoted and pressured into retirement. Current interim chief, Harry C. Bailey, touched off a fracas in February when he reversed the misconduct findings for seven officers. On top of all that is a recent string of homicides and gun-related incidents in the east and south precincts.

To deal with these challenges, and work through the reforms, O'Toole promises to take a collaborative approach. "I certainly don't claim to have all the answers," she said during a morning press conference.

But she does have some ideas about what she would want to see as the department moves forward. For starters, she says, there needs to be a neighborhood policing plan in place, which reflects the concerns within each of the city's communities. (The department's current "Neighborhood Policing Staffing Plan" was developed in 2007.) "I'm going to go out there personally and meet with cops on the beat and people who live there and work there," O'Toole told Crosscut.

She also believes that good technology, and people who know how to use it, are required to get resources, like officers, in the right places. O'Toole helped establish the Boston Regional Intelligence Center during her time as police commissioner there. The center helps pinpoint areas with high levels of gang violence, shootings and other types of crime.

"We were able, on a daily basis," she says, "to capture information so we knew exactly what was happening where."

O’Toole also spent six years as the chief inspector of an oversight body responsible for implementing reforms within the Irish national police service. During her time at that post, the police service crafted a "resource allocation plan." The misalignment between the department's resources and the actual demand for service, in terms the number of calls and the times of day incidents occurred, was in her words "frightening."

Prompted by the reform process, Seattle's department is planning to acquire a "business intelligence system," which could strengthen its ability to analyze crime data and deploy officers where they are most needed. While O'Toole did not mention the system specifically, it is the type of development she seems to support. "The department is definitely behind the times on technology," she says.

Last week, the police department presented a report to the city's Community Police Commission, which showed a steep decline in recent years in the number of times Seattle police officers stopped to investigate and call in suspicious activities or minor violations. The mayor called the trend "concerning."

"Why did it take so long to get that data?" O'Toole asks. "It should set off bells and whistles on a police chief's dashboard, or on a supervisor's dashboard if you see activity levels that are declining."


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Comments:

Posted Tue, May 20, 4:32 p.m. Inappropriate

There's no reason both service and enforcement can't occur.

Djinn

Posted Tue, May 20, 8:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Looks like the Mayor in drag. Brilliant!

wsobchak

Posted Wed, May 21, 5:33 p.m. Inappropriate

That's hopeful to hear, since police officers are public servants.

sarah90

Posted Wed, May 21, 9:26 p.m. Inappropriate

This should be interesting. If she's as Irish and Boston as her name, this could be a new era of policing in Seattle. .

Posted Sat, May 24, 2:14 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm not a Murray fan but I think he's made a great choice in O'Toole. Unlike the other finalists, she's experienced in a big city with lots of crime, racial problems and an inbred police department.

Her statements about service are welcome and needed. There are too many SPD, particularly younger officers, who view themselves as a paramilitary force. Assisting citizens with broken-down cars in traffic, neighbor conflicts, and mental health crisis are just as important as kicking in doors and gunning down suspects.

I can recall SPD showing up when my very elderly mother had her car, full of grandkids, stall on a very busy street. The cop was rude and clearly conveyed the impression that his time was too valuable to waste on this dispatch. And no he didn't have some other more pressing criminal matter to deal with. I've heard similar stories from other people.

Recently, I was in an elevator at the KC Courthouse with an officer who in addition to his sidearm, taser and baton, had three extra high-capacity clips on his belt. I figure about 60 rounds all told. My companion jokingly asked if he had enough ammo for the day. He replied that in Iraq he had learned to be prepared. We didn't suggest that patrolling Seattle and Fallujah might not require the same firepower or mindset.

Mr_Jones

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