Mayor Ed Murray touted Kathleen O’Toole’s police reform experience when announcing her as his choice to head the Seattle Police Department (SPD). O’Toole was the police commissioner for the Boston Police Department and oversaw reform efforts in the New Haven, Conn., Police Department and Ireland’s national police service.
If selected, O’Toole will be the first woman to head the SPD.
A 12-person search committee began the police chief search in January and recommended finalists to Murray. The Seattle City Council will hold public meetings to interview O’Toole and hear public comments June 4, 11 and 12.
The council will make its final confirmation decision at a 2 p.m. meeting June 23.
O’Toole has her backers. She received accolades from U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, who heads the Seattle office of the Department of Justice. East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. lauded her work there.
Some say O’Toole’s résumé on police reform is thin and her record is diminished by some questionable decisions.
A Boston attorney who works in police accountability said O’Toole’s two-year tenure at the Boston Police Department was too brief to be consequential and marred by a high-profile police killing.
“She wasn’t here that long,” said Howard Friedman, a lawyer who specializes in police misconduct cases. “I couldn’t say there was a major change or much of anything else.”
O’Toole was in charge of the police response to the death of Victoria Snelgrove, a 21-year-old Emerson College student who was celebrating with Boston Red Sox fans in 2004 following an American League Championship win over the New York Yankees.
Boston Police Deputy Superintendent Robert O’Toole (no relation) handed out pepper-spray ball guns to officers who were not trained or authorized to use them, Friedman said. During the celebration, one pepper spray ball hit Snelgrove in the eye. She died at a hospital later that evening.
“The Boston Police Department accepts full responsibility for the death of Victoria Snelgrove,” Kathleen O’Toole told reporters in 2004.
The Boston Police Department paid Snelgrove’s family $5 million in a settlement. But Kathleen O’Toole also blamed “punks” for turning a sports celebration into a riot, according to The Boston Globe.
Friedman said he was disappointed that O’Toole allowed Boston Police Deputy Superintendent Robert O’Toole to retire from the police department instead of facing discipline. It makes her an odd choice for Seattle, he said.
“I was surprised Seattle hired Kathleen O’Toole,” Friedman said. “I do not think she will be the one to make the needed changes.”
O’Toole was one of three finalists Murray considered to take the helm at SPD, which included Frank Milstead, police chief in Mesa, Ariz., and Robert Lehner, police Chief in Elk Grove, Calif.
As Seattle’s top cop, she faces what is arguably the biggest police reform project of her career.
O’Toole comes to the Puget Sound as SPD undergoes court-ordered reforms following a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that found that Seattle officers have a “pattern and practice” of excessive force.
The report was unable to determine if SPD officers engage in biased policing, but noted that an estimated 70 percent of uses of force were done to people with mental illness or a chemical dependency issue.
Officers can avoid using force if they have appropriate training and oversight and a closer relationship with service providers, O’Toole said.
SPD has spent the past two and a half years working on a number of reform efforts following the 2011 DOJ report. Police accountability advocates asked the DOJ to examine SPD following a string of high-profile incidents.
In 2010 a freelance videographer caught Officer Shandy Cobane kicking a man on the ground and threatening him, saying, “I’m going to beat the fucking Mexican piss out of you, homie.”
Later that year, Officer Ian Birk shot and killed Native American woodcarver John T. Williams.
O’Toole said she is eager to continue the reform effort. She said the DOJ did a great investigation and said she has no problems with the findings.
“Rather than resist it, I’m embracing it,” she said in an interview with Real Change.