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September 2, 2014 at 6:09 AM

Seattle’s new police chief is an empathetic multitasker, but far from naive

At a time of national hand-wringing over police use-of-force, things are calm in Seattle thanks in part to the city’s new top cop Kathleen O’Toole.

Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole

Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole (Photo by Ted S. Warren / AP)

Sworn in as Seattle’s first female police chief just two months ago, O’Toole immediately set out to not just build bridges with the city’s various

communities, but also with the department’s rank-and-file.

In her third day in office, she called on old contacts in Boston to help her open community channels here in Seattle. Those ties were so strong, she said, that some Boston associates flew to Seattle for her swearing-in.

“It’s the way I’ve always done business,” she said Wednesday during a wide-ranging, candid interview.

O’Toole seems to multitask constantly, claiming she rarely spends more than 15 minutes at her desk each day.

While walking to a morning meeting Wednesday she conversed with an aide and spoke with me by phone about community engagement.

She credited others in the department for initiating a recent community forum with black leaders in the wake of the fatal Ferguson, Mo. police shooting.

“Given all that’s happened recently in the country and the discussion around Ferguson, it’s a reminder of how important these relationships are,” O’Toole said. “We have to constantly work at those relationships, and reinforce those relations.”

And she spoke up for the beleaguered SPD, and the progress it’s made before she arrived addressing its federally diagnosed excessive use-of-force and biased policing.

“The vast majority of officers in this organization just want to move on,” she added. “I also think we need to tell our story better. The community would want to know how much work has gone into this.”

When O’Toole cut the interview short one minute before she was due to with the mayor, she apologized profusely.

Hours later, she called back.

“Sorry, I just want to apologize for being so abrupt earlier,” O’Toole said.

That’s the kind of accessibility and humanity any great city should have in its leading law enforcement official.

But O’Toole is more than an emotive executive. She also comes with a resume that could have put her in a federal cabinet post.

She’s been Boston police chief, served in the Massachusetts State Patrol and as Massachusetts Public Safety secretary. O’Toole also took her policing talents abroad, supervising best practices, and accountability reforms of the Irish national police service.

And her most pertinent credential for Seattle is being hand-picked by the Department of Justice to oversee a federal consent decree in East Haven, Conn. last year.

O’Toole’s experience wielding the tool historically utilized to rehabilitate rogue police departments is relevant because the SPD has operated under a consent decree since 2012.

She was just beginning her confirmation process here in May when about 100 Seattle Police officers made national headlines by filing a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming Seattle’s consent decree was too restrictive.

“That was a shame,” O’Toole said. “It created a perception that the whole SPD is resisting change. That was a real setback for the organization because there is a commitment in the department to implementing this agreement, and there’s a lot of community support for it as well. I want to focus on that and hopefully marginalize any resisters out there.”

Resistance to the consent decree grew louder Wednesday when the suing officers claimed unnamed city, police, and union officials privately supported their lawsuit.

O’Toole doesn’t dismiss their apprehensions. But, she says, she’s not naive as to some of their motives.

“I’ve talked to some of the officers in that suit and some have legitimate concerns,” she said, admitting there have been unanticipated administrative and operational consequences.

“But there’s been so much scrutiny lately that the good cops are demoralized,” she added. “They need to see some light at the end of the tunnel.”

O’Toole clearly shows promise for the post. Still, she’ll need to be as shrewd as she is empathetic for those good cops she mentioned to have a real champion and for the city to know it has placed its public safety in effective hands.

Comments | Topics: consent decree, kathleen o'toole, seattle police

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