Chief Kathleen O’Toole has spent much of her first eight months seeing that federally mandated reforms are carried out.
She’s having fun.
After eight months on the job, Seattle’s energetic police chief, Kathleen O’Toole, insists there are no frustrations, only challenges.
“I’ve loved every minute of it,” O’Toole said in a wide-ranging interview with The Seattle Times, sandwiched between her busy calendar and the unplanned events that have marked her time on the job.
Family: husband, Dan; daughter, Meghan
Experience: O’Toole has held multiple positions in the public and private sectors, including Boston police officer and commissioner; chief inspector of the Irish national police; Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety; and lieutenant colonel, Massachusetts State Police.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, Boston College, 1976; juris doctor, New England School of Law, 1982
Sworn in as SPD chief: June 23, 2014
O’Toole, 60, took over a demoralized department, buffeted by years of bad publicity and budding federal oversight requiring it to adopt reforms to address excessive force and biased policing.
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With a mandate from Mayor Ed Murray, the man who hired her, to make reform her top priority, O’Toole has spent much of her time seeing that a court-ordered consent decree is carried out while still balancing all the other duties the public expects of the department.
“There’s always the crisis du jour. And on many days there are crises du jour,” O’Toole said of the inevitable mayhem that sends her to shooting scenes at all hours or forces her to deal with alleged officer misconduct.
Even in the middle of the interview, one of her top aides burst into her office with a group of community-college and high-school students he found at a Starbucks after they had attended Murray’s state-of-the-city speech that afternoon.
O’Toole jumped up, asking them about their studies.
“Any potential recruits?” she queried.
The trick, O’Toole said, is to not let the day-to-day demands dominate her time.
From her past jobs as Boston’s police commissioner and law-enforcement positions in Massachusetts and the Irish national police, she said she knows she must make time to deal with long-term strategy.
It is important not only to meet with community groups, she said, but also to visit the precincts and explain to officers the rationale behind certain decisions and discipline and “why we’re taking some of these cases very seriously.”
Already, she said, inroads are being made among officers worn down by scrutiny.
“I’m trying to … breathe some life back into the place and get people enthusiastic about getting out and doing police work and recognizing good police work,” O’Toole said.
While she expected more resistance to her as an outsider, she said she has been welcomed inside and outside the department.
Merrick Bobb, the federal monitor overseeing the reforms, has lauded O’Toole for moving the department toward compliance with the 2012 consent decree between the city and the U.S. Justice Department.
In recent weeks, the department finally started the long-delayed process of constructing a required computer system that will, for the first time, allow it to measure the effectiveness of all the new training programs and review procedures that have been put in place.
“We all want the same thing at the end of the day,” O’Toole said. “We want this to be the model that others look to for constitutional policing and reform.”
In other areas, O’Toole lists a broad range of accomplishments, including SeaStat, the name for regular, data-driven meetings of police officials and prosecutors to identify crime trends and target them.
Likewise, the department has created SeaFin, the financial version of SeaStat.
Led by new hire Mike Wagers, a civilian O’Toole brought in as the department’s first chief operating officer, its mission is to make sure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely, including overtime pay.
The department is also entering into a gun-tracing partnership with the Seattle office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, in which three ATF agents will work full-time, side-by-side Seattle police.
Other initiatives include:
• An early-intervention system to spot problem officers before they get in bigger trouble, using a computer program to gather information in one database.
• A new social-media policy, providing clear direction to officers on what kind of private postings undermine the department’s relationship with the community.
• Hiring a consultant to study ways to better handle low-priority 911 calls.
• A recently completed mentoring initiative, pairing female officers who voluntarily worked on weekends with women in the refugee community.
• A pilot project in which 12 officers are wearing body cameras. While privacy issues associated with the project need to be addressed, O’Toole said, she believes the department has a “moral responsibility” to determine if cameras can reduce contentious encounters and use-of-force incidents.
Whatever successes she has enjoyed, she said, resulted from collaborative relationships she’s forged in and outside the department, including a strong working relationship with Murray.
She is fond of saying change and cultural reform can’t be dictated.
O’Toole cited her “extraordinary” line of communication with Ron Smith, who since becoming president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild last year has moved the union away from its strained relationship with the community.
Most recently, Smith told officers that if they didn’t like Seattle’s political ways, they could choose to work elsewhere.
“I think he’s demonstrated some very principled leadership in recent months as we’ve faced challenges,” O’Toole said. “Every indication is that he is entirely onboard for reform in this organization. He represents his members well, as he should. But he certainly hasn’t been an impediment to change, nor has his board of directors.”
Not all has gone smoothly.
O’Toole has faced constant complaints about downtown disorder, a term, she said, that “people use very liberally around here” in reference to homeless encampments, people in crisis and drug dealing.
“Well, drug dealing is the easy one. That’s a crime and the police can address that, “ she said.
“Homelessness is not a crime. In fact, it’s a challenge for all of us and we need to help people who are in dire financial straits who don’t have homes,” O’Toole added, pointing to the need for other city agencies and service providers to work together on solutions.
Special patrols have been deployed wearing bright vests. “But walking around with a high-vis vest alone is not going to stop crime or prevent crime. We really need to engage with people,” O’Toole said.
Critics faulted the department for heavy-handed practices during recent protests over the killing of black men by white police officers. O’Toole ordered a full review and pledged to make changes if needed, although she expressed overall satisfaction with the limited number of injuries, property damage and arrests.
“I don’t think we ever could have anticipated the developments related to Ferguson and some of the other incidents that happened in the country,” she said. “That’s added an additional layer of challenges. But it’s the police business.”
The department recently discovered a troubling gap in its communications with the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which handles internal investigations.
OPA was unaware of an officer’s controversial arrest of an elderly black man carrying a golf club as a cane. And police officials were unaware OPA had received a subsequent complaint about a racially-charged Facebook posting attributed to the same officer.
The problem should be resolved through the early-intervention system, O’Toole said.
She also acknowledged there is significant room for improvement in the way the department recruits, hires and trains officers.
Anne Levinson, the civilian auditor who monitors the police-disciplinary system, recently reported there were OPA cases involving new officers still at the police academy and in field training. “The fact that there are troubling behaviors already evident among recruits and probationary employees should be cause for concern as to the City’s background checks and hiring processes,” Levinson wrote.
O’Toole said it will take time to accomplish everything on her agenda. “My problem is, I have little patience. I want to see it all done yesterday.”
Sometimes that is reflected in a quick, hand-slapping motion displayed in meetings — something O’Toole wasn’t aware of until her deputy chief, Carmen Best, pointed it out to her.
O’Toole’s next big step will come soon, when she announces what is widely expected to be a major shake-up of her top command staff. Among the likely moves is bringing in one or more outsiders, a prospect that already has met with some internal resistance.
She is unlikely to be fazed by it.
“I’m not inclined to be a frustrated person,” O’Toole said. “I would say that, for me, challenges are opportunities. I don’t get frustrated. I just get more determined.”