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

As the new chief takes command of SPD, the challenges she will encounter are reflected in the issues that experts say she should prioritize.

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.

Matthew J. Hickman, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Seattle University, said, "What you're going to see here is O'Toole is going to bring some life back into community policing." Community policing is an approach to law enforcement that tries to incorporate residents, nonprofits, businesses and other government agencies into solving public safety problems.

Hickman said that following the September 11 terrorist attacks, community policing fell by the wayside in many police departments around the country. "I think you'll see O'Toole turn the wheel there," he said.

Community policing is also seen as a way to increase the level the of trust between police and the community, which is important in Seattle now, according to Fe Lopez, executive director of the city's Community Police Commission, which provides input on the reforms. "I think building community trust is the number one priority," Lopez said.

Establishing that trust will require significant work in some parts of the city. "We've got to look into the under-policing that's going on in the south end," Rev. Harriett Walden, founder of Mothers for Police Accountability, said. "Why aren't they solving crimes down there?"

Referring to violent criminals, she said: "I think people are so emboldened because they know nobody's going to be arrested."

Lisa Daugaard, deputy director of the King County Department of Public Defense, said the police department needs to build confidence in communities that police will respond to public safety concerns. It's also important, she said, for the department to blend public health strategies with law enforcement.

As an example of how public health and policing can be combined, she notes the city's Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, program. The program involves officers working with case managers to redirect low-level drug and prostitution offenders from jail to services like addiction treatment. Daugaard said that caseworkers can bring training and funds to the table that are not available to police. Officers, she said, "cannot pay someone's rent, they cannot get them quick access to a methadone clinic, even though that's what's needed."

But one of the difficulties with this approach, she said, is sending a message to community members that hybrids of traditional policing and public health programs do not result in diminished law enforcement. Another is making sure that officers have the support and knowledge they need to help them bridge the gap between police work and social work.

"It is a demanding vision of what it means to be an officer," she said. "They're not being asked to be social workers, they're being asked to work with social workers."

The expanded vision of police work that Daugaard describes aligns with another issue that Burgess believes the new chief should prioritize. "I think we have to step back and ask who are we recruiting," he said. Burgess would also like to see O'Toole re-examine how recruits are trained, as well as the department's promotion system. Each of these processes, he said, should be "totally remade."

The top issue that City Councilmember Nick Licata thinks O'Toole should tackle is the disciplinary system used to handle officer misconduct cases.

Licata said that it might be a good idea for the new chief to sit down with King County Sheriff John Urquhart who, in his view, has done a good job dealing with disciplinary issues. "He's actually fired police officers," Licata said. "We have not gone down that road."

"It's not like you do it all the time," he continued, "but if you never do it, you set up a culture of: What's punishable?"

A controversy unfolded earlier this year when interim Chief Harry Bailey's reversed disciplinary findings in seven officer misconduct cases. Licata and others have criticized an appeal process that allowed those decisions to be overturned.

"In the first six months, if she doesn't come off as setting the stage for how discipline is dealt with, she's lost the battle," Licata said.

At the swearing-in ceremony on Monday, O'Toole acknowledged that her new job would not be easy.

"Policing is a difficult and complex business," she said. "And no doubt we'll have challenges along the road."

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