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Council committee recommends O’Toole as next SPD chief

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

Getting confirmed as Seattle's next police chief might be one of the easier tests Kathleen O'Toole will face in the coming weeks and months. 

A City Council committee voted on Thursday to recommended her confirmation. A full Council vote on the former Boston Police Commissioner's appointment is scheduled for June 23. While she has strong approval from the council, the full support of Mayor Ed Murray, who nominated her for the post last month, and endorsements from leaders of each of the city's two major police unions, the job won't be a cakewalk. 

"We're delighted that you've chosen Seattle," said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw at Thursday's meeting of the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee, during which councilmembers outlined some of the expectations they have for O'Toole. These include reducing crimes such as domestic violence, assaults, robberies and burglaries, working to minimize conflicts between officers and the public and overseeing the build-out of a vast new computer system.

The list of additional challenges is not trivial. The city is in the midst of a federally-mandated police reform process, which has at times proven difficult for the department. Some patrol officers have expressed dissatisfaction with reform-related policies. Acting independently of their union, a group of about 120 cops filed a lawsuit last month against the city and a number of local and federal officials over the department's new use-of-force policies. Public safety issues are also stewing, including recent gun violence in the Central District and parts of south Seattle. There are also complaints about chronic, low-level "quality of life" crimes like open-air drug use and drinking in Downtown.

The Mayor said Thursday that he would call for a special City Council meeting on June 25 to discuss "a unified approach to public safety." Murray first indicated that he would do so last Friday, following a shooting at Seattle Pacific University, which left one student dead and another seriously injured, and a recent double homicide in Leschi, which took the lives of two men in their 20s.

Thursday's committee meeting was the third in the council's confirmation process for the chief nominee. Bruce Harrell, who chairs the committee, gave O'Toole an opportunity to respond to criticism by some public commenters about her pledge to run the department like a business. "We're spending taxpayer's money and we have to do it as efficiently as possible," O'Toole said, adding that it was important that the department is "allocating our resources to the places where they're facing the greatest challenges."

The department is just getting started on a major computer upgrade, which could dovetail with these goals. The so-called "business intelligence system" will involve new computer software and hardware to help track and manage data about crime and officer performance. Early cost estimates for the new system put the price at around $12 million, and implementing it promises to be a heavy-lift for the department.

In response to her explanation of how the department could be more business-like, Councilmember Tim Burgess replied: "I wouldn't shy away from that one bit."

O'Toole emphasized that working with neighborhoods would be a top priority. "We need to get out there and spend as much time in the community as possible," she said, "engaging with, and developing policing plans for, each neighborhood from the bottom up."

A few blocks from City Hall on Thursday, the Alliance for Pioneer Square held an open house to solicit ideas from residents, business owners, employees and others about how to improve public safety in the neighborhood. Throughout the day, people dropped in and wrote their recommendations on easel-sized pieces of paper that were taped to the walls of an art gallery.

Community members shared ideas for improving community safety in Pioneer Square. Credit: Bill Lucia

"In this neighborhood most of us have given up calling," said Leslie Smith, the Alliance's executive director, as she discussed how Seattle police officers were allocated based on 911 calls. "What we're seeing is a lack of enforcement."

Martin Duffy, owner of Assemblage, an antique and furnishing shop on 2nd Avenue South, was one of the people who stopped in at the open house. In the two years he has owned the shop, Duffy said he has seen crime in the neighborhood get worse. "I see drug dealing and crack use multiple times a day," he said. "I see violence, fist fights."

While she did not refer to Pioneer Square, Bagshaw said during the Council meeting that there continues to be a "perception" that some of the city's neighborhoods are unsafe even when statistics show that crime rates are down. She asked O'Toole to look at public safety not just as the police department's responsibility, but as an issue tied to public health and mental health.

O'Toole would be the city's first permanent police chief since last April, when John Diaz retired and Jim Pugel stepped in on an interim-basis. (One of Ed Murray's first moves as Mayor was to replace Pugel with Harry C. Bailey.) O'Toole would also be the city's first permanent female police chief. Murray has asked that her annual salary be $250,000. In addition to her time as commissioner in Boston, O'Toole served a six-year term as chief inspector of the 17,000-member Irish national police service. Her work there involved reform and accountability.

"You already have five votes," said Bruce Harrell, after the Council's public safety committee voted unanimously to recommend her confirmation on Thursday. "That's a good sign."

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