The First Lady’s box has been used for more than three decades to single out heroic acts and honor Americans who exemplify the themes and ideals laid out in the State of the Union address.
Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole has been invited to sit in the first lady’s box during President Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday.
O’Toole was chosen for what the White House described as her nationally recognized efforts to change department policies and build community ties.
The first lady’s box has been used for more than three decades to single out heroic acts and honor Americans who exemplify the themes and ideals laid out in the State of the Union address.
In a tradition dating to President Reagan’s administration, O’Toole will join more than 20 others selected to sit with Michelle Obama during the nationally televised speech. One seat will remain empty to represent victims of gun violence who no longer have a voice, a White House official said.
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At times over the years, the president has recognized guests by name during the speech.
O’Toole said she got a call last Sunday inviting her to attend.
“I was a bit stunned to be honest and certainly humbled,” she said, calling the invitation a great indication that Seattle has embraced police reform.
In his remarks, Obama likely will touch on building ties between police and communities, a major push of his administration. If so, it’s not known if he will directly mention the work taking place in Seattle.
O’Toole, who was sworn in as Seattle’s chief in June 2014, inherited a department struggling to comply with federally mandated reforms stemming from 2011 U.S. Justice Department investigation that found officers too often resorted to excessive force and displayed evidence of biased policing.
Since then, Merrick Bobb, the federal monitor overseeing the reform effort, has credited O’Toole with leading the department toward compliance with a 2012 consent decree between the city and Justice Department to curb excessive force and discriminatory policing.
In inviting O’Toole to sit with the first lady, the White House noted her focus on working with the community, improving officer morale, implementing new policies and making the most of department resources. Included was a six-month pilot program in which officers wore body cameras, which led to a $600,000 Justice Department grant to expand the program.
Last year, Seattle police officials participated in a White House event to boost the use of data and technology to build public trust.
O’Toole, confessing she isn’t comfortable in the limelight, called the State of the Union invitation a wonderful opportunity to represent all who have worked on reform, including Mayor Ed Murray, city officials, the Justice Department and the federal monitor’s team.
“I have to believe that collaborative effort led to this invitation,” she said.
“Certainly we are not done, but I think we’re definitely ahead of the curve,” she added, referring to other cities looking at reforms such as de-escalating confrontations and crisis intervention.
In a visit to Seattle in September, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch praised the progress of police reforms, saying the city had become a model for law-enforcement agencies around the country in light of deadly police encounters in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md.
Seattle’s efforts have drawn visits by police from several major cities, including Baltimore and New York, to learn about what is being done.
O’Toole will be accompanied by DeAndre Coulter, a communications intern in Murray’s office.
Coulter, 22, is a senior at the University of Washington who plans to graduate this spring with a degree in communications and minor in diversity.
Although Coulter won’t sit with O’Toole during the speech, he will attend a White House reception and tour with her before the speech and will participate in other activities.
Murray, in a statement, said he was pleased Coulter will be attending and praised O’Toole and Seattle police for their “significant strides towards reforming our department and becoming a national model for urban policing.”
“Across the nation, communities are looking to Seattle and the reforms we’ve made regarding training, transparency and accountability,” Murray said. “While we still have much more work to do, it’s a strong statement that the administration is recognizing Seattle’s leadership on this national priority during the president’s final State of the Union.”