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October 10, 2014 at 11:55 AM

Plainclothes Seattle police chief makes the case for more uniformed officers

Sipping on a honey nut smoothie in a downtown cafe Thursday morning, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole didn’t act like the city’s top cop, or even dress the part.

Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole poses for a selfie with Seattle Times editorial writer Robert Vickers. (Robert Vickers / The Seattle Times)

Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole poses for a selfie with Seattle Times editorial writer Robert Vickers. (Robert Vickers / The Seattle Times)

O’Toole, who took over the embattled department in July, wore civilian clothes, spoke in hushed tones when she used the word “police,” and conversed with a personal ease atypical of law enforcement officials – all that while her department was heavily deployed to secure Vice President Joe Biden’s visit.

As if to drive home the point that she’s not an everyday police chief, O’Toole proposed a selfie when I asked for a photo.

What big city police chief does that?

O’Toole, who insisted on being called “Kathy,” seems to enjoy the anonymity her newness brings. She rarely wears her uniform, noting that in civilian clothes she can see what Seattleites are doing when they don’t think police are watching.

The chief recounted an eyebrow-raising plainclothes stroll around downtown last week with City Attorney Peter Holmes, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg and King County Sherriff John Urquhart to observe commonplace crime on city streets.

“We all saw it first hand, and we agreed we have work to do,” O’Toole said, adding that social services are equally important in the effort.

The law enforcement triumvirate noticed people smoking pot out in the open – still a no-no in Washington even though consumption is legal. Rather than run the violators in or ticket them, O’Toole’s inclination is to have officers encourage public smokers to “put it out.”

But officers need to be present to make that suggestion. And Seattle cops are conspicuously unseen on city streets – particularly downtown, where violations and unruly behavior are more concentrated.

“I’ve been shocked by it myself,” O’Toole insisted with a look of astonishment.

Again, not the response one expects from a police chief.

“Police officers have been somewhat hesitant to enforce downtown because of all the scrutiny in recent years,” she added, referring to the department’s new use-of-force protocols imposed by a federal consent decree. “They’re confused about what they can do, and what they can’t do. We need to get back to basics.”

In addition to implementing a data-driven policing model with community input, O’Toole says she intends to commission a resource allocation study of department staffing levels and deployments, but admits to a gut feeling that she needs more cops to keep the city safe.

She compared Seattle to Boston, where she was also police commissioner.

Both cities have approximately the same population. But Boston has about 800 more uniformed officers than Seattle, while Seattle has about twice the acreage to police.

Her solution would create a more visible police presence on city streets, but she also wants to encourage all officers to actively engage citizens even when they are not breaking the law.

The more cops idea already has a receptive audience, even among some critical City Council members.

Councilmember Tim Burgess notes that the city was poised to add a net increase of 100 officers before the Great Recession hit. In the ensuing years, the city has struggled to maintain its uniformed staffing levels.

“If Chief O’Toole can establish why we need more officers and how we’re going to use them, I’m going to be supportive of her,” Burgess said Thursday.

That spirit of support may also extend to the rank-and-file of a police department that has had four chiefs in four years.

“I expected there would be some resistance to an outsider,” O’Toole said. “There hasn’t been nearly as much as I expected.”

“I think that people [in the department] are crying out for leadership at this point,” she added. “Internally people just want to get beyond the challenges of the past few years, move on, and implement the consent decree.”

O’Toole seems like she’s offering Seattle cops a way out of the departmental doldrums. But the jury’s still out on whether the officers will follow her lead.

Comments | Topics: crime, downtown seattle, kathleen o'toole


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