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updated 2:54 PM UTC, Jul 28, 2018

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O'Toole turnaround of Seattle police community interaction drawing attention


As the president of China departs Thursday morning after a visit that represented a high-visibility recognition for the Seattle area's growing role on the global economic stage, U.S. Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch arrives for a less visible visit to discuss Seattle's progress on police reforms that are drawing attention on the law enforcement stage.

Kathleen O'Toole 
In fact, part of the discussion will be about Seattle's progress in implementing reforms mandated by the Justice Department and may touch on Seattle's growing role as a trend-setter, under Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole, in implementing new procedures for police-community relations.

Lynch's visit is part of a multi-city community policing tour and, while she is here, she will get a close-up look at how Seattle's police chief has done in leading a turnaround of the department where she took the reins 18 months ago in the face of a Justice Department-ordered revamping of policing procedures.

O'Toole was sworn in as Chief of the Seattle Police Department on June 23rd, 2014, selected after a highly visible national search for the person who could turn around a challenged department in which the Seattle community had largely lost trust.

Coincidental with this week's visit by Lynch, along with Vanita Gupta, Principal Deputy Assistant Atty. Gen. for Civil Rights and COPS Director Ronald L. Davis, was a breakfast-audience conversations last Friday at the Columbia Tower Club.

O'Toole, a career police officer as well as a lawyer, had earned an international reputation for her leadership and ability to shape reform strategy, including a six-year term as chief inspector of the Irish oversight body responsible for bringing reforms to the 17,000 member Irish national police service.

At the Tower Club interview, she remarked that when she first got to Ireland, she was asked if among other changes she would introduce the use of weapons, since police officers in Ireland, England and the United Kingdom don't carry weapons. She said she had no intention of doing that.

In fact, O'Toole told the breakfast audience, "many people get their impressions of policing from the gun fights and car chases they see on television.  They think it's all about enforcement.  In reality, most police work involves service."

"The department is actually doing more service-oriented business than law enforcement," she said, and noted as an example that the department "is on track to assist 10,000 people a year in crisis," meaning people on the street in activity that prompts a call to police.

What she sees as the positive impact about the real nature of police work that comes about from getting a close inside look is pointed up by a recent experience of a group of inner-city young people the department hired for summer jobs as part of Mayor Ed Murray's effort to increase city hiring of young people.

O'Toole chuckled that when the youngsters first learned they were being offered jobs with the police department, there was general reluctance.

She explained that her department hired 20 inner-city youth, "mostly young people of color" and after the summer employment ended, she said she met with them.

"They spoke very fondly of their experience and noted that police work was very different than they expected," she said. "They established friendships with many officers, and some are now considering careers with the SPD - something they never imagined doing prior to this experience." 

O'Toole, who before her stint in Ireland served in key police management roles in Massachusetts and Boston, first in 1994 as Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety and 10 years later as Boston Police Commissioner, says the changing nature of police work is going to require recruitment changes.

She specifically referred to targeting more minorities and immigrants for policing careers.

She thinks some of the changes are occurring as a result of the events in Ferguson, MO, and elsewhere that "have created a ripple effect around the country."

Ferguson and similar events generated vigorous debate about the relationship between law enforcement and African-Americans, and the concept of use of force in policing.

"When I assumed this role in June of 2014, I knew it would be a challenging job, but never anticipated the series of national events that have deeply affected relations between police and community, incidents that have caused many police agencies to contemplate reform," O'Toole said.

"Fortunately, the Seattle Police Department was moving full speed ahead with reform prior to these developments," she added. " We still have work to do, but I'm pleased we can share our early experience with others, since in recent months, many police departments have visited us to learn about our new policies and training related to important issues, including Use of Force, Crisis Intervention and de-escalation."

She listed police departments in New York, Baltimore, Dallas, Milwaukee and, Portland among the visitor and said more departments are scheduled to visit in the coming months.

It would be Pollyannaish to think that all members of a police force singled out by the Justice Department for court-ordered turnaround are all in lockstep with the changes O'Toole is guiding. Some refer in conversation about the changes, particularly the rules on the use of force, to "rules of engagement being written by a Justice Department attorney."

  On a current local topic, O'Toole was asked whether any challenges have emerged for police since the legalization of marijuana in this state.

"It's fairly early for any trends to have emerged," she replied. "Except for the competing drug dealers who set up business across the street from the legal shops and sell it for less illegally."
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