Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole attracted well-deserved attention from the White House for department reforms. But there remains more to do.
SEATTLE Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole’s seat next to first lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union represents a remarkable achievement.
While other urban police departments are blindly groping for credibility, Seattle police is well on its way to shaking free of federal monitoring. The department has revolutionized its training process. It has dramatically improved its oversight on use-of-force incidents.
And, under O’Toole’s leadership, it has shown a strong commitment to transparency. President Obama lauded Seattle police for outfitting officers with body cameras, and the department’s willingness to be a better community partner is such that O’Toole got what amounts to a love note on Tuesday from the civilian Seattle Community Police Commission, which had been a critic.
But O’Toole’s turn in the D.C. spotlight shouldn’t distract from the work her department still must do — not just to fully comply with the 2012 federal consent decree, but to regain community trust.
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In his most recent report, Merrick Bobb, the federally appointed monitor of the Seattle police, noted the department still has weak supervision at the front line for use-of-force incidents. The department’s top-level oversight board is doing better, but lower-level supervisors are often not holding the troops accountable.
Reforms also haven’t won over many communities of color. The still-unsolved killing of Donnie Chin, the guardian angel of the Chinatown-International District, exposed long-standing fault lines between police and the neighborhood. Complaints include a lack of response to 911 calls from non-English speakers and a lack of a police station in a neighborhood that has seen street disorder rise as it was swept out of downtown’s Westlake Park.
And reforms to use-of-force policies also don’t seem to have universally been adopted at demonstrations. A teacher peacefully demonstrating at a Black Lives Matter protest last Martin Luther King Day was pepper sprayed, and Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell criticized an officer’s “idiotic” takedown of a protester during last year’s May Day protests.
Obama praised O’Toole for community policing, but this community still needs more from its police.