Federal monitor Merrick Bobb praised new Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole on Wednesday, citing her efforts to deal with “issues and problems” related to data collection considered crucial to carrying out court-ordered reforms.
“Chief O’Toole is a very quick study, very sensitive to these issues, understands what’s going on and has a plan,” Bobb told the City Council’s public-safety committee in a briefing.
Bobb said O’Toole had eased his pessimism, expressed in his third semiannual progress report released June 16, about the launch of a temporary computer system to track use of force and other information. The interim step is being used by the department while it develops a permanent business intelligence system.
O’Toole, a former Boston police commissioner, took over the Seattle Police Department on June 23, inheriting a 2-year-old consent decree with the Department of Justice (DOJ) requiring reforms to curtail excessive force and biased policing.
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She sat in the audience during Wednesday’s briefing, signaling her commitment to giving top priority to the reform effort.
Bobb, asked by committee Chair Bruce Harrell about the reasons for the problem, said he saw no signs that the lapses stemmed from “intentional sabotage.” Rather, he said, the problem could be traced to a lack of skills that O’Toole is trying to solve.
In particular, Bobb said, O’Toole is working with Maggie Goodrich, the chief information officer of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). That department found itself under a federal consent decree between 2001 and 2013, requiring it to address DOJ findings of excessive force, false arrests and unreasonable searches and seizures.
Goodrich oversaw the development of the LAPD business intelligence system and knows the pitfalls, and her assistance is a positive move, Bobb told the committee.
On another subject, Harrell asked Bobb whether new use-of-force policies have hamstrung officers, as some officers have claimed, and are so comprehensive that they are having a chilling effect on carrying out their duties, as alleged in a recent lawsuit brought by more than 100 officers to block the policies.
“I think it is more a myth than reality that officers are being chilled,” Bobb said, noting that a Harvard University study on the impact of the Los Angeles consent decree found no pattern of so-called depolicing.
He said the policies were drafted with the assistance of officers, with nothing that compromises officer safety.
But Bobb said the changes have led to understandable anxiety over the new policies, likening the situation to going to an unfamiliar supermarket and not knowing where to find the Cheerios.
Over time, Bobb said, officers should find that the policies are not as disruptive as they fear.
He also emphasized that the policies are subject to review after a year, and that they could be modified.
City Councilmember Sally Clark, recalling a ride-along she had with Seattle police, relayed officers’ consternation that some “practiced” suspects were automatically raising the “ouch” factor when handcuffed, and that officers said they were spending an inordinate amount of time doing required paperwork instead of working on the street.
Bobb said that issue might require tinkering.
Harrell closed the briefing by saying that it would be helpful if the monitor’s future reports provided some type of grading on the police department’s progress, so the city doesn’t get caught by surprise on where it stands.
Bobb said he and his team would try to provide more guidance.