Kathleen O'Toole and Mayor Ed Murray the day he announced her as his pick for police chief.
This afternoon, the Seattle City Council's public safety committee had a little meet and greet with the yet-to-be-confirmed police chief candidate Kathleen O'Toole. I guess it could've been a moment for some tough questions, but the council seems to be on autopilot here, after a chief search process that O'Toole herself called "grueling." O'Toole is scheduled to be confirmed on June 23, after a public meeting on June 11 and another council meeting on the 12th.
Ron Sims, co-chair of the search committee, overflowed with praise for O'Toole, saying she'd "won our heart" and describing her as "innovative," "imaginative," "demanding," and "responsive." If the council confirms her, he said, "I don't think any other city will have a better, finer police chief than Seattle." Even public commenters, who tend to regale this committee in particular with invective and rage, seemed cautiously optimistic or downright excited to see O'Toole, who was as graceful, candid, and cheerful as ever. After committee chair Bruce Harrell asked her to keep her remarks short due to time, she joked that she tries to "follow the three B's: Be brief, be brilliant, be gone." The room was quite taken with her.
Which means I got skeptical. It's my job! When everyone's feeling gushy and warm and City Hall's passing out hugs, I kind of want to know who spiked the Kool-Aid and what's going on in that back room over there. But then she said something that I've been waiting to hear from a police chief for a really long time. And I understood Sims's remark about her winning the search committee's heart.
"My favorite part of the job," she said, for the at least the second time, "is always getting out there in the community." She added that sure, she understands everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and maybe not every officer considers public outreach or community engagement their best asset.
But, she mused, "I think for a long time we've maybe recruited the wrong type of people to policing." She sounded a bit like she was thinking aloud.
"On TV," she said, "policing is all about car chases," and tough guys, and action shots. But that's just not a reflection of reality—and it's not good advertising for the job. In the real world, she continued, "policing is all about helping people in need." Whether that's solving a crime or delivering a baby or answering questions, it's "just really being there for people in need."
So, she added, "we need to better educate young people on what the job's all about. And hopefully we'll recruit the kind of candidates who are eager to get out there in the community."
She's certainly not the first person to posit that maybe the "wrong type of people" are attracted to policing, a position of societal power that can be abused. But she's our next police chief talking about the parts of police culture that are wrong, and she's also saying clearly that there's a solution: recruiting good cops, training them well, emphasizing community engagement. Her version of policing is all about public trust and a good relationship with the general public—and she said all this in answer to a comment from Bruce Harrell on the department's race and social justice training, meaning that these comments were about officers' responsibility to engage with all communities.
Whether words are backed up by deeds is something that only time will tell, and deeds are really the only way to judge a police chief. But it's certainly a glimmer of hope.