In a recent speech, East Haven, Conn., Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. lavished praise on an outside expert appointed to help the town’s police department comply with a settlement agreement with the Justice Department to curtail false arrests, biased policing and excessive force.
That person was Kathleen O’Toole, a former Boston police commissioner and internationally recognized public-safety leader who Thursday emerged as a top candidate to become Seattle’s next police chief.
“I think I speak for our entire team when I say that Ms. O’Toole has proven to be engaged and truly dedicated to helping our community succeed in satisfying the requirements of our settlement agreement,” said Maturo, according to an online text of his remarks. “In many ways, her experience as a street cop, as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Massachusetts State Police, as an administrator in Boston, and as Chief Inspector with the Irish National Police Force, have proven invaluable in helping direct our efforts here in East Haven.”
With that background, it is not surprising O’Toole captured the attention of the 12-member search committee formed in January by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to find a new chief. The Seattle Police Department is under a court-ordered consent decree with the Department of Justice, requiring reforms to curb excessive force and biased policing.
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O’Toole, 59, who comes from a family of police officers, couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.
Asked to confirm whether O’Toole was a candidate, Murray spokesman Jeff Reading declined to comment, while Murray later Thursday denounced news leaks about the search.
But a source with knowledge of the search told The Seattle Times the committee is focusing on O’Toole and three men, all from out of state, as the top candidates for the job.
On Friday morning, the names of the other three candidates were disclosed: Robert Lehner, the chief in Elk Grove, Calif., who previously served as police chief in Eugene, Ore., and assistant chief in Tucson, Ariz.; Patrick M. Melvin, the chief of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Arizona; and Frank Milstead, chief of the Mesa, Ariz., Police Department and formerly a commander with the Phoenix Police Department.
Murray has said he plans to announce his choice the week of May 19, a decision considered to be among the most important he will make as mayor.
If he selects O’Toole, she would be Seattle’s first female police chief.
“We have never had a woman chief of police at the Seattle Police Department. We have two assistant chiefs who are women and have had a number of female assistant chiefs in the past,” police spokesman Mark Jamieson said.
O’Toole, currently the president of a consulting firm in Boston, served as Boston’s police commissioner from 2004 to 2006 after rising through the ranks of local and state law enforcement.
She left the department to take on an unusual challenge, accepting a job as chief inspector of Garda Siochana Inspectorate, an agency that inspects the operations and administration of Ireland’s national police force. She held the post from 2006 to 2012 before returning to the Boston area as a consultant, according to a 2013 story in the Boston Business Journal.
In February 2013, the Justice Department announced she had been selected as the Joint Compliance Expert to assess and report on implementation of the settlement agreement with East Haven, whose police department was found to have engaged in a pattern or practice of unlawful discrimination against Latinos.
O’Toole was described as working her way up the ranks of the Boston Police Department, serving as Massachusetts’ secretary of public safety and bringing reform and accountability to the Irish national police.
The settlement agreement called for reforms to curb biased policing, including measures to provide mandatory training, collection and analysis of data on police encounters.
It also required reforms regarding use of force; searches and seizures; policies and training; civilian complaints, internal investigations and discipline; supervision and management; and community engagement and oversight.
Seattle’s landmark agreement with the Justice Department, forged in 2012, requires similar reforms.
O’Toole reported earlier this year that East Haven had made “remarkable” progress in the year since it signed the agreement, according to a story in the New Haven Register.
During her stint in Ireland, O’Toole told The Irish Times in 2007 of one summer in Boston when police were predicting major violence. Before schools let out, she asked her gang unit to compile a list of 1,000 teens who were most likely to kill or be killed that summer, the newspaper recounted. “In over 850 cases we were able to get into the home with a team of police social workers, clergy, mental-health professionals,” O’Toole said.
As Boston’s first female police commissioner, O’Toole headed the department when it accepted “full responsibility” for the October 2004 death of a 21-year-old college student killed by a police pepper-spray ball fired to disperse crowds celebrating a Boston Red Sox victory over the New York Yankees that put the team into the World Series, according to new reports.
“The Boston Police Department is devastated by this tragedy. This terrible event should never have happened,” O’Toole told reporters. “The Boston Police Department accepts full responsibility for the death of Victoria Snelgrove.”
Video from the scene where Snelgrove was struck showed the crowd in a joyous mood, slapping high-fives and chanting celebratory Red Sox slogans, CNN reported.
“This day, which should have been one of celebration, is heartbreakingly tragic,” O’Toole said. “I can’t imagine the grief that her family is suffering and express my deepest sympathy to them.”
O’Toole said she “firmly and emphatically” accepted responsibility for any errors officers may have made, CNN reported. But she condemned the “punks” she said turned a victory celebration into a near-riot.
The city paid a $5.1 million settlement to the student’s family, and five officers faced unspecified internal disciplinary action over what an independent commission blamed on planning and tactical errors, according to news reports.
Efforts to reach people who have worked with O’Toole were largely unsuccessful Thursday.
But a former Boston police employee told The Seattle Times that O’Toole “has an incredible amount of integrity and work ethic. She is tremendously in-tune with the needs of management, the administration and the officers on the street.
“She really understands community policing and the importance of transparency in a police department and really making that community connection,” said the woman, who asked not to be named because she did not have permission of her new employer to talk.
The woman, who lives and works in Boston, referred to O’Toole as “Kathy” and said the former police commissioner has a wonderful family. O’Toole and her husband, a retired Boston police officer, have a grown daughter.
The woman said O’Toole is also proud of her family’s Irish roots.
“She’s essentially worked at every rank at the police department,” the former employee said. “She really understands the needs of a beat officer, a sergeant or command staff. There’s not many types of incidents she hasn’t seen.”
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