Confirmed in June 2014 as Seattle’s top cop, Kathleen O’Toole, the first permanent female chief, inherited a lemon. Among the police department’s glitches: unsteady leadership (there had been three other chiefs since 2009); ongoing violence (in the South Precinct alone there were more than two dozen shootings in three months in 2014); and a U.S. Department of Justice rebuke placing the department under federal supervision amid allegations of racially biased policing and excessive force.
Can the 60-year-old Massachusetts native fix it? In Boston, as that city’s first female police commissioner (after serving as a patrol officer in the ’80s), she cleared several unfair labor practice lawsuits and oversaw the investigation into the death of a civilian killed by a pepper-spray projectile during a protest. And under her leadership, police made just six arrests during protests of the Boston 2004 Democratic National Convention.
While she does speak of concrete solutions—like updating SPD’s antiquated computer system—the most difficult challenge, restoring public trust in SPD, particularly in neighborhoods where the community has long felt abandoned or even targeted by police, won’t be a problem the city can spend its way out of. “The police department,” she says, “must reflect the community it serves in order to be credible.” To O’Toole that means improving diversity in the SPD ranks, including both gender and ethnic diversity, and outreach to immigrants and refugees, particularly women.
She also wants Seattle cops to live in the city (less than 20 percent of officers do now). Of course, that has become increasingly difficult for typical rank-and-file SPD officers, whose starting salary averages $69,000. O’Toole says she, for one, will definitely live in Seattle—a far easier feat with her $250,000 salary. “I’m a city kid.”