Before she was confirmed as Seattle police chief on Monday, Kathleen O’Toole met privately in early June with four officers to discuss a controversial lawsuit brought by them and more than 100 others seeking to block new use-of-force policies.
O’Toole, in an interview Wednesday, said she requested the meeting to learn more about the suit as she prepared for the job, and to open a constructive conversation with the officers.
But, O’Toole said, she conveyed her concern that their suit had created the appearance that they were resisting reform, and that they were making it more difficult to carry out changes and restore community trust.
“I think litigation should be the last resort because it undermines the spirit of cooperation going forward,” O’Toole said.
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The new policies, which went into effect Jan. 1, stem from the 2012 consent decree between the Department of Justice and the city, which requires the police department to adopt reforms to curtail excessive force and biased policing.
The lawsuit, filed May 28 by 123 officers, detectives and sergeants acting without an attorney representing them, alleges the policies are “mechanical” and unrealistic, violate their civil rights and put them and the public in danger.
Brought against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and others, the suit seeks an injunction to block implementation of the policies, a declaratory judgment that they are unconstitutional and unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
The suit was filed shortly after Murray nominated O’Toole, a former Boston police commissioner, for the chief’s job.
While its legal merits remain untested, the suit has proved to be a public-relations headache for the city, stirring anger among some in the community who view the action as a sign of rank-and-file entrenchment against reform.
In a May 31 statement, the officers insisted they “fully support police reform and accountability consistent with the law, the Constitution, and the reality of policing in Seattle” and “agree wholeheartedly with the Department of Justice (DOJ) that ‘constitutional policing is effective policing.’
“However, constitutional policing cannot be maintained by violating the civil rights and protections of the officers sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution,” their statement said.
O’Toole said she asked Ron Smith, the president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, to help arrange the meeting earlier this month, which he attended. The guild, which represents officers and sergeants, did not join in the lawsuit, nor has it supported it.
The meeting took place June 4 at City Hall, Smith and O’Toole recalled.
“I thought it was a great dialogue,” she said, describing it as informal. “I wanted to hear their perspective. I felt it was a productive meeting.”
O’Toole, noting her unofficial capacity at the time, said she didn’t explicitly recommend that the officers drop the suit or offer them formal legal advice.
But she told them it was unfortunate their differences had reached the point of a lawsuit that “doesn’t serve anyone’s purpose,” O’Toole said.
Smith said Wednesday that O’Toole brilliantly handled the discussion, calling her account of the meeting “150 percent” accurate.
“She heard them out and they had their day,” Smith said, while she made no promises and subtly dropped hints that they withdraw their suit.
The officers have pressed ahead since the meeting, filing a recent motion with the court to add two more officers to the suit while subtracting 16 others.
“The reasons for removal vary,” their motion said, including one officer who had died and others who have since resigned or are in the process of leaving the department.
“In other cases, officers no longer wish to be party to the case due to fear of retaliation from the department or intimidation and concern over financial liability,” the motion said.
In asking to add officers, the motion said the police department’s command staff “severely restricted our ability to speak with our fellow officers in the precincts of our department about the substance and purpose of our lawsuit.”
Consequently, many officers were not informed of the suit and didn’t have the chance to join it before it was filed, the motion said.
U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman, in a brief order, struck the motion, saying the proper course was to amend the suit.
The motion was filed by Officer Sjon Stevens, who couldn’t be reached for comment through a phone number and email address listed in court papers.
O’Toole, who served as Boston police commissioner from 2004 to 2006 and then six years as chief inspector of Ireland’s national police, is familiar with police reforms initiated by the Department of Justice. Until recently, she worked as an outside expert in East Haven, Conn., to help that city enact federally mandated changes to curtail false arrests, biased policing and excessive force.
She said Wednesday that she, along with Murray, is fully committed to the reform effort in Seattle.
“Bottom line, we’re moving full speed ahead with them,” she said, emphasizing her desire to work collaboratively with the Department of Justice and the federal monitor overseeing reforms, Merrick Bobb.
But as she moves forward with her efforts, O’Toole said, the suit has placed her in an “awkward position” because it creates the appearance of resistance.
“So there’s no question it undermines that spirit of cooperation I want to promote,” she said.
O’Toole noted the use-of-force policies are subject to review and said she reassured the officers during the meeting that they would have a “voice at the table.”
“If they have a concern, I want to hear about it,” she said.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @stevemiletich
Seattle Times staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this story, which includes information from Times archives.