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Seattle police chief nominee faces first confirmation hearing

Seattle's new police chief nominee, Kathleen O'Toole, fielded questions from members of the Seattle City Council's Public Safety, Civil Rights, & Technology Committee on Wednesday. (Seattle Channel screen grab)

Seattle’s new police chief nominee faced the first of several confirmation hearings Wednesday on her way to becoming the first female to lead the city’s police department.

Kathleen O’Toole, a former Boston police commissioner, fielded questions from members of the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights, & Technology Committee.

Committee member Tim Burgess called O’Toole “a breath of fresh air.”

O’Toole, whose appointment by Mayor Ed Murray is expected to be approved by the full council on June 23, was asked Wednesday how she will address challenges facing the department over the next several years.

O’Toole stressed that her top priorities as chief of police will be earning community trust, restoring pride and professionalism within the department, and addressing crime while improving quality of life.

“I will spend lots of time in the community,” O’Toole said. “I think that’s really, really important.”

She said she would look to have a preliminary policing plan in place for each neighborhood in the city during her first 30 to 60 days on to job, and discussed the importance of cleaning up open air drug markets in the downtown core.

O’Toole said she has had time to visit several of the city’s precincts and interact with officers on the streets.

“I met some wonderful people, some wonderful people who are demoralized at this point,” she said. “They’re looking for leadership. They’re looking for the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Her nomination comes at a critical time for the department, which is under an agreement with the Department of Justice to reform how officers use force following a finding that officers too often resorted to force and engaged in bias policing against minorities. O’Toole said she is committed to implementing the consent decree reached between the city and the DOJ and to move the department forward quickly.

“I think we should work with the Department of Justice, not against the Department of Justice (…) to drive cultural reform in the organization.”

Her confirmation also comes during a time of internal turmoil, with 123 officers filing a lawsuit against the city and the federal government last week related to new use of force policies they consider complicated and contradictory.

“My hope is that we can get beyond litigation and back to policing as soon as possible,” O’Toole said. “It saddens me when things have to get to the point where people file suits.”

While she would not comment on specifics of the suit, O’Toole told the committee she looks forward to having open and respectful dialogue with all those who have concerns about requirements set forth by the consent decree.

A second Public Safety Committee meeting will be held on June 11, with a final recommendation the following day. The council will vote on the appointment June 23 at 2 p.m.

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