Police Chief O’Toole ready to tackle Seattle’s “Troubles”

[video of the October 11, 2014 meeting is here]

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) has had a tough go of it for many years.    There is no doubt that they have had both leadership and rank-and-file problems which have produced highly visible incidents involving civil unrest (WTO and Mardi Gras riots) or inappropriate engagement with the Seattle civilians who they are meant to serve.

In late 2011 the SPD was investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and was found to have used excessive force in almost 20% of cases where force was needed.

After months of negotiation, in July 2012, the City and DOJ reached settlement  which required SPD to develop more specific policies on what constitutes biased policing, to improve oversight, training and reporting, and notably establish new procedures under which officers could be disciplined or fired.   The resultant monitoring and reporting produces a wealth of information about the department.

But already SPD is in trouble over training associated with the settlement.  In 2012 and 2013 excessive costs associated with providing the training was brought forward by anonymous complaint to the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), the civilian led oversight department within SPD.

And embarrassingly, a recently leaked “unofficial” SPD memo indicated that North Precinct detectives are too short handed to investigate most burglaries, although shortly after the report, SPD announced the bust of a prolific north end crime ring.

The  Department is looking closely at how it allocates its resources, and City Council has allocated $500,000 for an independent management review and assessment of SPD resource deployment

And Mayor Murray is seeking 100 more officers to bolster the force.

Seattle as a whole has more violent crime than the State and National averages, with, as one would expect, crime rates greater in the denser central portions of the city than the less dense and wealthier portions of the city.

Currently SPD has 1,264 fully trained officers for our population of about 650K.  But in 1998 we had 1,238 officers when our population was about 540K .

Yet Seattle has seen a multi-year downward trend in violent crime and property crime, though just a week ago SPD released new data showing major crime rising in the early part of 2014 compared to 2013 (though it is trending downward again)  with the shift largely tied to auto thefts which were  up 44 percent and an increase in assaults.

The FBI and American Society of Criminology advise against using crime statistics as an indicator of police effectiveness and staffing since there are “many conditions affecting crime rates” in addition to the number of police officers per capita.

Seattle has been through several Police Chiefs and Interim Chiefs in the last 15 years.  By Resolution, City Council in 2010 defined policy goals and priorities for the new Chief of Police to include a focus on  community’s confidence, neighborhood policing, and effectively managing budgets.

SPD has struggled with improving its community-oriented policing and community relations,  and has been targeting hot spots and trying to apply best practices to improve effectiveness in how it engages the communities it is meant to serve.

Over a decade ago in the Nickels administration, Community Service Officers and other lower-cost civilian positions were cut.  Before they were let go, over 20,000 calls per year which would have required the presence of a uniformed police officer were handled by them; largely non-violent investigations and engagement.  Many community activists believe this is an important role to re-establish, along with other non-policing services for neighborhoods.

Regarding staffing and budgets, it was recently disclosed the Department spent $22M on overtime – $7M more than budgeted.  20 officers received more than $60K in overtime pay.   Sporting and other special events are heavily policed and perhaps permit fees for such are too low cover the costs.  It is also unclear as to whether with such significant overtime expenditure could SPD instead just hire more officers.

SPD provides quarterly progress reports to Council, but this Monday’s report (October 6) was the first for our new Police Chief, Kathleen O’Toole, since taking command in Seattle.

Chief  O’Toole was selected by Mayor Murray to be Chief of Police and has served since June, 2014.   She has quickly become a noticeable figure in the City and has started making changes, such as using “data-driven policing” and more frequent community engagement  in a new program called “SeaStat”.

O’Toole served with the State Police and Executive Office of Public Safety in Massachusetts in the 1990s, and in 1998 became a member of the Patten Commission which was responsible for identifying police reforms as part of the Belfast Agreement ending “the troubles” in Northern Ireland.   She then became the first female Police Commissioner of Boston in 2004, but returned to Ireland in 2006 as the first Chief Inspector of the Garda Inspectorate to the Garda Síochána (Ireland’s police force) during a period of scandal in order to improve efficiency and effectiveness of police  administration and operation.

Her history with reform and leadership in complicated policing situations obviously made her an ideal candidate for Seattle.

The SNC is thrilled to have Chief O’Toole join us to discuss the troubles here in Seattle and her vision and plan to resolve problems that have plagued the department in recent years.

Please join us for what promises to be a lively and informative discussion.  We ask that you RSVP if you can for this meeting as we expect it to be popular.

[by Bill Bradburd, October 5, 2014]

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