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New Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole faces a big to-do list

As the new chief takes command of SPD, the challenges she will encounter are reflected in the issues that experts say she should prioritize.
Seattle police chief Kathleen O'Toole shortly after her swearing-in ceremony. City Attorney Peter Holmes is at left and former interim police chief, Harry C. Bailey is at right.

Seattle police chief Kathleen O'Toole shortly after her swearing-in ceremony. City Attorney Peter Holmes is at left and former interim police chief, Harry C. Bailey is at right. Bill Lucia

Kathleen O'Toole after her nomination as Seattle police chief

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

Boosting officer morale, building community trust, reducing crime. These are a few of the challenging issues that elected officials and others familiar with city law enforcement say Kathleen O'Toole must confront as she assumes command of the Seattle Police Department.

O'Toole was sworn in as Seattle's new chief of police on Monday afternoon following a City Council vote that confirmed her appointment to the position. Mayor Ed Murray nominated the former Boston police commissioner for the post last month. She is the department's first permanent chief since last April and the first woman to hold the position on a permanent basis in Seattle.

O'Toole will now begin the work of steering an organization that is moving through a period of turbulence and transformation.

"There's a lot to be done, but we will succeed in rebuilding public trust, rebuilding department pride and professionalism, addressing the concerns I've heard about crime and disorder in the different neighborhoods throughout the city," O'Toole said during her remarks at Monday's swearing in ceremony at City Hall. "And we'll also run the police department effectively and efficiently.

"We'll only accomplish these goals by working together and harnessing resources with partners in public safety, in education, in social services, in housing services and the business community as well."

About a half-dozen individuals who are familiar with, or involved in, police department affairs talked with Crosscut about issues they believe the new chief should put at the top of her to-do list. Their responses tracked closely with statements O'Toole has made in recent weeks about how she will approach the job, but also illuminate the scope and complexity of the challenges the department faces.

“Help get the morale of the department out of the toilet," Seattle Police Officers Guild President Ron Smith said when asked what O'Toole's number one priority should be.

Along with Smith, elected officials and patrol officers themselves have said that morale among the department's ranks is low. Two commonly cited factors for this malaise are uneasiness with the city's federally-mandated police reform process and unstable department leadership. A group of about 120 officers recently filed a lawsuit over a new use-of-force policy that was implemented as a part of the reforms. The suit claims that the policy is overly complicated and restricts officers' ability to protect themselves and others from danger.

There are also concerns that officers are policing less assertively in recent years. Data released by the department in May showed declines in the in the number of times officers were deciding on their own to stop and investigate suspicious activity since the reform process began.

Smith said that officers are looking for a clear message about what is expected of them, what resources they have to do the job and that the department's brass has their back. “I want her to express what her vision is and what her demands are, and then give the worker bees the tools and support to get it done,” he said.

City Council President Tim Burgess believes that the prevailing mindset within the department is ripe for a big shift.

"Our police department has become stagnant and needs to be reinvigorated," said Burgess, when asked about what he would like to see O'Toole prioritize. A former chair of the City Council committee that oversees public safety, Burgess also served as a detective in the department during the 1970s. He wants to see O'Toole focus on creating a "culture of inquiry and innovation that will begin to make all of our officers passionate and motivated."

Strengthening the department's relationship with Seattle's communities is another frequently voiced expectation for O'Toole. "The priority is working with neighborhoods from the ground up to reduce crime," City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who chairs the public safety committee, said in an emailed statement. The new chief has said repeatedly that coming up with policing plans for each of Seattle's neighborhoods will be one of her first orders of business.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jun 24, 5:24 a.m. Inappropriate

As a parent and resident of Seattle, I can't help but see the analogy between the Seattle Police Department and Seattle Public Schools. Both have excellent rank and file employees held back by a history of inconsistent and weak leadership within Seattle's often dysfunctional government. Let's hope that Chief O'Toole lasts a little longer than current SPS superintendent Banda. If Mayor Murray can get the SPD back on track perhaps he should consider a similar intervention to save SPS for the school board and educational meddlers.

WSDW

Posted Wed, Jun 25, 9:55 a.m. Inappropriate

WSDW, Point out to me please, where in the City Charter or State Law, the Mayor has any control over Public Schools. Public schools in this state are free standing, municipal corporations with independently, directly elected board members. The Mayor can neither hire them or fire them. The Mayor has no budget authority over the taxes collected by the District. The best he can do is withhold families and education levy money levied on city taxpayers by their own vote. That is city money, but none of it funds public schools directly. It only funds before and after school programs run by the city for school kids.

Posted Thu, Jun 26, 10:02 p.m. Inappropriate

It has been done in quite a few other big cities with mixed results. I believe it would require the help of the State legislature. The idea was mooted by both Mayor Nickels and Mayor McGinn and is discussed at length in http://www.crpe.org/sites/default/files/pub_crpe_mayoral_feb08_0.pdf

WSDW

Posted Wed, Jun 25, 9:04 p.m. Inappropriate

I remember receiving a Newslstter from Councilmembr Burgess a while back in which he said he was reading David Kennedy's "Don't Shoot" http://seattle.bibliocommons.com/item/show/2730308030_dont_shoot

In that Kennedy began work in Boston, I wonder what Burgess concluded and about the Mayor and his new chief's knowledge of same. Kennedy's insight applies to gang related violence, South End or otherwise, not so much to youth who do not have access to gangs as salve for alienation, low self-esteme and lack of an otherwise productive future.

afreeman

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