Kathleen O’Toole was met with a standing ovation as she walked into a crowded room at Seattle City Hall Monday morning. Alongside Mayor Ed Murray, it was her official introduction as the nominee to become the city’s first female police chief.
While the mayor’s office had somehow managed to keep her nomination from leaking to the press, it came as no surprise.
O’Toole, a former Boston police commissioner, was the odds-on favorite of Seattle Police Department insiders and those hoping for a natural leader to help the city through an agreement with the Department of Justice to reform how officers here use force.
“I promise you, I promise the police department, I promise the community that I’ll work tirelessly to realize your vision, and that’s that the Seattle Police Department be the finest police department in this country, second to none,” O’Toole said to those gathered inside the Bertha Knight Landes room, a fitting venue considering Landes was the city’s first female mayor.
“I never even imagined I’d be a police officer when I was a young person. It wasn’t an opportunity available to young women,” O’Toole told KIRO Radio Monday afternoon. “I was in Boston College when they hired the first female patrol officer in Boston, so here I am more than three decades later. I’ve had extraordinary opportunities but this is sort of the icing on the cake.”
O’Toole, who just turned 60, joined the Boston Police Department as a patrol officer in 1979 and worked her way up through the ranks. She later worked in other public safety positions in Massachusetts, including as the state’s secretary of public safety.
She returned to serve as Boston’s police commissioner from 2004 to 2006 before completing a six-year term as chief of an oversight body responsible for reforms in the Irish national police force. She has since focused on consulting work, including helping to monitor whether police in East Haven, Connecticut, are complying with a federal mandate to curtail false arrests, discriminatory policing and excessive force.
O’Toole bested two other finalists, Elk Grove, California, Police Chief Robert Lehner and Mesa, Arizona, Police Chief Frank Milstead, to get the nomination, which must now be approved by the Seattle City Council.
“I don’t expect much pushback at all,” Councilman Bruce Harrell said of the process. “She’s clearly qualified. We did our homework to get us to this point.”
O’Toole also has the support of the city’s police unions.
Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Ron Smith, who served on the police chief search committee, said he is thrilled with O’Toole’s nomination.
“Chief O’Toole was my number one choice from the time I looked at the resumes, all the way through the interview process,” he said. “She’s the real deal.”
Smith said a top priority for O’Toole, if she hopes to get the department back on track, will be restoring officer morale.
KIRO Radio read O’Toole letters from officers, including a West Precinct patrol officer who expressed frustration with the state of the department.
I love this city. I raised a family here. I used to be excited about being a police officer here. Not anymore. More often than not, I dread putting on my uniform in the morning. I used to see it as my personal mission to help clean up downtown, but why should I bother being proactive if I’m going to wind up sitting at a desk doing paperwork, or worse, being the lead story on the 5 p.m. news? No thanks. I’ll do the bare minimum of what’s required of me, punch my card, go home, and wait for retirement.”
In an email to KIRO Radio, another patrol officer expressed frustration about Department of Justice requirements.
Who wants to go out and give their absolute best when they are insulted and confused daily by new policy changes?
“Obviously some of these officers are demoralized and it has to be very discouraging when they’re under the microscope all the time,” O’Toole said. “But again, we have to acknowledge there have been some serious issues in the past and we have to get beyond those serious issues.”
She said restoring community trust in the department and improving officer morale will go hand-in-hand.
“Because I think that the sooner the community has confidence in the police and they are more supportive of the police, police officers will respond to that.”
O’Toole said she will spend much of the next few months meeting with officers. She is expected to be on the job by June 23.