Seattle's new police chief has had a busy first few months

With just over 100 days on the job, Seattle police chief Kathleen O'Toole briefed the City Council on her department's recent work.
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Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole, left, talks with Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council president Pat Murakami at a recent meeting.

With just over 100 days on the job, Seattle police chief Kathleen O'Toole briefed the City Council on her department's recent work.

Kathleen O'Toole has been busy during her first few months as Seattle's police chief.

Under her tenure, the department has tackled major technology and community engagement initiatives, battled to tamp down crime rates and pushed forward an extensive new officer training regimen tied to Seattle's ongoing police reform process.

The chief and members of her high-level staff outlined some of the department's recent work in a quarterly report delivered to the Seattle City Council on Monday. 

As she delivered the quarterly report, O'Toole highlighted the department's use of the new SeaStat process, which involves identifying trends in crime data and deploying officers accordingly. "Although we've implemented the SeaStat system that does compile data, we're also supplementing that with the info we get from the community," she told the Council.

Since her nomination, Chief O'Toole has indicated that building connections and trust with neighborhoods throughout the city would be one of her top priorities. Attached to her report was a list of 51 community events and meetings the department has participated in during her 106-day tenure. These ranged from the Find-It-Fix-It Community Walks championed by Mayor Ed Murray's Office, to Somali youth soccer tournaments. O'Toole said in her report that she was personally engaging the community "morning, noon and night."

Robberies in southeast Seattle, auto thefts in the north precinct and assaults and robberies in the east precinct, which includes Capitol Hill, have been among the department's top concerns in recent months, according to O'Toole. But crime rates are shifting. In September, robberies in the South Precinct, which encompasses southeast Seattle, dropped 50 percent.

In July, shortly after O'Toole came on board at the police department, statistics showed that the overall citywide crime rate was up by nearly 25 percent compared to the prior year. By the end of September, the size of the increase had dropped to about 13 percent, the chief said. Some of that decline was due to inaccuracies the department discovered within its crime data. O'Toole noted that the department now has a Data Validation Team that is regularly working to ensure that that crime statistics are up to date and accurate.

"We also started to address some of the trends fairly aggressively," O'Toole said. "We saw a dramatic decrease in auto thefts over the past few months."

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw asked if officers were embracing the department's newly adopted de-escalation training and incorporating it into their day-to-day work.

O'Toole said that it would take time to gather information about the effectiveness of the training. But Assistant Chief Nick Metz, who commands the bureau that oversees patrol operations, told the Council that he believed the training was producing good results.

"We're getting officers out of their cars, we're getting them to interact with folks in the community," he said. "From what I'm seeing and what I'm hearing from the community and from the officers ... that it is being embraced."

The department is currently carrying out four training programs designed to teach officers how to de-escalate situations that could result in the use of force and how to better handle circumstances where people are experiencing substance abuse or mental health crises.

The police department has already finished administering two other reform-related officer training programs. One dealt with a new use of force policy and another with how to wield "less lethal weapons," such as batons and Tasers. 

The reforms have been underway since 2012, after a U.S. Justice Department investigation in 2011 found patterns of excessive force by officers in the Seattle Police Department.

As it stands, O'Toole said in her report that: "Seattle has one of the most robust systems of police accountability in the nation." 

On the technology front, O'Toole mentioned that the department aims to issue a request for vendor proposals by Jan. 1 of next year for a massive new computer system that would be used to store, analyze and access data about crime and officer performance. The contract should be awarded by June, her report said. The monitor overseeing the reforms has identified the so-called business intelligence system as a key step toward meeting the requirements of the process. The computer system is expected to cost upwards of $12 million.

O'Toole also said that a working group began meeting again in September to discuss how to move forward with a long-delayed pilot program that would involve testing the use of body-worn cameras with a small group of police officers. The department has blamed concerns over data storage and privacy for holding up the pilot program.

The police department, O'Toole said, is also exploring whether it can farm out the management and administration of a controversial wireless mesh network to the city's IT department. The system is capable of tracking the movements of cell phones, laptops and other wireless devices.

Toward the end of the meeting, O'Toole noted that officers had carried out dozens of major arrests in recent months involving a wide variety of crimes. She said, "There's lots of very good police work going on out there."

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