Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole testified she transferred a sergeant, lieutenant and captain out of the South Precinct to defuse a “powder keg” between officers, contradicting claims she retaliated against them in response to a dispute about overtime pay.
Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole testified Thursday she transferred a sergeant, lieutenant and captain out of the South Precinct to defuse a “powder keg” between warring officers, contradicting claims she retaliated against them in response to a dispute about the handling of overtime pay.
“I can absolutely assure you there was no retaliation in this case,” O’Toole told a King County Superior Court jury in the fourth day of a civil trial in which Capt. David Proudfoot, Lt. Steve Strand and Sgt. Ella Elias are seeking monetary damages over their transfers to lower-paying positions.
The rare appearance of a police chief on the witness stand added another twist to the long-running case, triggered when Elias sued the city in 2014 on the grounds she was transferred after complaining that lucrative overtime pay had been improperly steered to four favored black officers in the precinct.
Proudfoot and Strand later joined the suit, alleging they were transferred last year after backing Elias, who is white, and challenging the department’s handling of the matter.
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In roughly 2½ hours on the witness stand, O’Toole, who inherited the problem after she became chief in June 2014, testified she faced a serious situation in the precinct with racial overtones.
“This was all about people,” O’Toole said of her decision-making.
Unflappable and confident as she underwent questioning by attorneys from both sides, O’Toole said she took action after meeting with officers in Elias’ squad and the squad with the four black officers.
O’Toole said tensions had reached a “boiling point,” even to the extent of raising safety questions when some officers expressed concerns about getting backup on calls.
“I just wanted to solve the problem,” she said, telling the jury she stepped in because Proudfoot had failed to address the issues and sided with Elias, a friend to whom he showed “blind loyalty.”
“Once I did, the problem was resolved,” she said.
Elias was initially transferred out of the precinct on a temporary basis, O’Toole testified, then was reprimanded and received a disciplinary transfer after telling Strand she preferred to work only with white officers under 40 years old.
Her comment was “completely inappropriate,” O’Toole said, noting Elias doubled down by defending it.
O’Toole acknowledged that an internal investigator had recommended Elias only receive additional training.
In opening statements of the trial, Lincoln Beauregard, an attorney representing the three officers, told jurors Elias made the remark after being informed, amid pressure on her, to take on a problem officer in her squad who is Native American. She wishes she had not made the remark, he said.
O’Toole told jurors she harbored no resentment toward Elias, Strand and Proudfoot and hopes they succeed in their careers. She singled out Proudfoot for stellar work in his new position in the training section, calling it key to meeting the terms of federally mandated reforms to curb excessive force and biased policing.
Proudfoot had been one her first appointments, she said, when she chose him to lead the South Precinct.
“I was really disappointed he let me down in this instance, O’Toole said.
The transfers, she said, were typical reassignments that routinely occur in the Police Department to meet varying demands, not punishment.
O’Toole also addressed assertions that she wasn’t invested in the city, an issue Beauregard raised in his opening statement when he suggested O’Toole had acted expediently in her handling of the issue. He characterized her as a money-driven career builder, with strong ties to the East Coast, where she once worked as Boston’s police commissioner.
“I love this city,” O’Toole testified, saying she had no plans to leave and viewed the job as her last opportunity to make an important contribution in her long law-enforcement career.