For Seattle police chief nominee, service trumps enforcement

Kathleen O'Toole after her nomination as Seattle police chief Credit: 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."

As for the suggestion that officers are on eggshells while on patrol because of the department's new reform-related policies, O'Toole said, "They need to regain their confidence and they'll only regain their confidence if we regain community trust."

Fairness, training and education were among the things she said would help officers as the department undergoes its transition to meet the Department of Justice requirements. "We can't have the 'gotcha' mentality," she says. "On the other hand, if they're rogue cops, if they're arrogant, if they're bigoted, if they're disrespectful, then we need to hold them accountable, because those people make everybody look bad."

She adds: "There are some really good, talented people in the Seattle PD who have strong values, who just want to get beyond this crisis and move forward."

O'Toole's first phone call after the morning press conference at which Mayor Murray announced her nomination, was to Merrick Bobb, Seattle's federally appointed police monitor. She has known him professionally over the years. O'Toole served as a monitor herself, for the city of East Haven, Connecticut, which, like Seattle, is working with the DOJ to implement police reforms. It's natural, she says, for tension to arise between a federal monitor and a police department. But she believes that good communication between the two parties can help the process run more smoothly.

Working with the city's often-tough police officers guild is another task that O'Toole believes she is up for. During her time in Boston, she negotiated with the union to place civilian employees in crime scene and forensics jobs. She also pointed out during the morning news conference that she was a member of Boston's police unions during her time on the force.

Despite the challenges ahead — unions, reforms, morale, technology upgrades — O'Toole is passionate about police work. "There are so many moments," she says, "whether it was as a young patrol officer, or as a police commissioner, when I felt like I was there to help people through a difficult time."

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