BOSTON — Throughout her career, Kathleen O’Toole has done the unexpected.
Instead of staying on her original path to become a lawyer, she joined the Boston Police Department on somewhat of a dare in 1979 at a time when few women were on the force.
Instead of retiring from the department, as most officers do, she left after only seven years when a rising young star in Boston law enforcement named
William Bratton — who would go on to remake the face of American policing and was familiar with O’Toole’s “positive notoriety” — asked her in the late 1980s to help him clean up a scandal-ridden police agency in the region.
After moving to other public-safety positions in Massachusetts, she ultimately returned in 2004 to the Boston Police Department as commissioner of the nation’s oldest police force, and seemed destined to hold that job for years.
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But in 2006, she accepted an overseas job as the head of a newly established body to improve Ireland’s national police force following a major corruption scandal.
She left that job in 2012 to focus on lucrative consulting work, including security planning for this year’s Boston Marathon after the tragic bombing the previous year.
Her path appeared set until, after being approached by a recruiting firm, the Massachusetts native again surprised those who know her by applying to become Seattle’s police chief.
“I have a passion for this stuff. I have a passion for public service and a passion for policing,” O’Toole said during a wide-ranging interview last week at the Boston College Club, her alma mater’s gathering spot in downtown Boston, in which she described herself as a “change driver.”
She spoke in particular of the pressing need for Seattle police to abide by the 2012 federal consent decree requiring reforms to curb excessive force and biased policing. O’Toole said real cultural change can’t be accomplished by simply checking boxes.
“I think it’s very serious. The consent decree wouldn’t exist unless there were serious issues there,” said O’Toole, who already is familiar with such issues in her current role as the outside expert helping to determine whether police in East Haven, Conn., are complying with a federal mandate to curtail false arrests, discriminatory policing and excessive force.
“It’s hard. But there needs to be a sense of urgency,” said O’Toole, noting that Seattle Mayor Ed Murray had convinced her that reforming the Police Department is his top priority.
Urgent is a word that comes naturally to O’Toole, the confident daughter of a father who was a math teacher and a mother who was a clerical administrator. Her grandfather was one of the nation’s first motorcycle cops.
She has just turned 60 and appears to have the same energy and skills that not only caught the attention of her mentor Bratton but also then-Gov. William Weld, who named her Massachusetts’ secretary of public safety in 1994, and Boston’s longest-serving mayor, Thomas Menino, who, while in office, tapped her to serve as the city’s first female police commissioner.
“She’s a good kid,” the former 20-year mayor said last week, labeling O’Toole a no-nonsense leader with the simultaneous ability to connect to people. He said he wasn’t upset when she left after only 28 months as commissioner, saying she had a great opportunity.
O’Toole was severely tested in her first year as police commissioner, when she took responsibility for the death of a 21-year-old college student. Victoria Snelgrove, an innocent bystander, was struck in the eye by a pepper-spray projectile when police quelled disturbances that erupted after a Boston Red Sox win propelled the team into the World Series.
Hours later, O’Toole went to see Snelgrove’s parents, embracing her mother.
“Hardest thing I ever had to do was walk to that front door,” said O’Toole, whose own daughter, Meghan, was about the same age as Victoria Snelgrove.
“There was no doubt in their mind it was genuine,” said Boston attorney Patrick Jones, who represented Snelgrove’s parents and obtained a $5.1 million out-of-court settlement from the city in less than a year.
Under O’Toole, the department didn’t display the “bunker mentality” over legal claims seen in the past, Jones said.
“It was a different place,” he said.
The fallout led to the retirement of one commander, the demotion of another and 90-day suspensions for two officers.
O’Toole’s actions were consistent with what others describe as her tough but fair approach to discipline and accountability.
“You want someone to lead your police department who understands those issues,” said Al Shaw, a longtime African-American community leader in Boston, referring to Seattle’s police department. “She understood those issues. Where she found rogue cops she moved on them. She has zero tolerance for rogue cops — zero.”
O’Toole, who goes by “Kathy,” reached out to community leaders, particularly in Boston’s troubled neighborhoods, establishing ties that eventually served her well in resolving issues and battling crime, Shaw said.
“That level of commitment she was talking about was above and beyond what anyone had publicly or privately stated in any meetings I had ever been in,” Shaw said, crediting O’Toole for changing his view of the police.
Similar sentiments abound.
“A better person to run a police department would be hard to find,” said minister Don Muhammad of the Nation of Islam and one of Boston’s most influential community leaders.
When major violence was predicted one summer in Boston, O’Toole asked her gang unit to compile a list of 1,000 teens considered most likely to kill or be killed, she recounted in a 2007 interview with an Irish newspaper. In 850 cases, a team of police social workers, clergy and mental-health professionals went into homes.
“She’s the real-deal package,” said Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, calling O’Toole a “change agent” who has demonstrated her abilities in Boston and Ireland.
O’Toole, who eventually got her law degree after joining the Boston Police Department, said she learned early in her career that most of police work is about service to people in need, not making arrests. She said she has never used excessive force or had to fire her gun, and found her need to use reasonable force somewhat reduced because male suspects sometimes weren’t sure how to react to a woman.
One of her favorite words is “collaboration.” She said she would bring that approach to SPD, the demands of the consent decree and the community, just as she did when she served on an eight-member international panel established to create a progressive policing strategy in Northern Ireland after the “Good Friday” peace agreement in 1998.
The head of the Boston police union that represents patrol officers did not return a reporter’s calls, but Lt. Joe Gillespie, former president of the major union that represents sergeants, lieutenants and captains, said O’Toole established a rapport and developed a reputation for being “fair” and “working with people.”
Her skills and knowledge are so valued that, even though she is not currently a public official, she sits on the terrorism committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said Terry Cunningham, the police chief in Wellesley, Mass., and a vice president of the organization.
She didn’t apply for the Seattle job until talking it over with her husband, Dan O’Toole, a retired Boston police detective who is 22 years older than she is. He urged her to go for the position.
If selected, she would become Seattle’s first female police chief. But while the self-described tomboy as a child is an avid believer in women working in law enforcement, O’Toole doesn’t dwell on the issue and has insisted that gender didn’t hinder her rise.
One of her first moves, she said in an email, would be to form a transition team, including some outsiders, who would conduct an assessment and produce an action plan during her first 60 to 90 days. Some of the outsiders would possibly stay and O’Toole would evaluate internal and external candidates for the command staff.
In her five-year plan submitted to the city, she wrote that she envisions restoring community trust and confidence in three years and having reforms required under the consent decree with the Department of Justice in place by the end of the period.
In East Haven, the mayor has lavished praise on O’Toole for her work assisting that city in satisfying the requirements of an agreement it reached with the Justice Department. Her job requires her to, among other things, thoroughly review that city’s police policies, training and procedures.
Bratton, a former Boston police commissioner also known for developing progressive policies while serving as Los Angeles police chief and New York City police commissioner, recalled what he saw in O’Toole many years ago when he hired her at the regional agency he then headed.
“Kathy had very quickly obtained positive notoriety in the Boston Police Department,” Bratton, who is serving his second stint as New York’s commissioner, said during an interview last week at his office at police headquarters in Manhattan
“Kathy likes going into organizations where there’s challenges … she’s not a maintenance-type of leader or manager,” he said. “She’s very creative, very transformational. And the skills that she has as far as working with people. She’s not confrontational. She gets things done by collaboration rather than confrontation. And I think that’s what’s going to be necessary there.”
As for O’Toole’s own impression of what Seattle is looking for: “People really want to line up in back of this next police leader and all row in the same direction.”
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story. Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org