Yesterday, Kshama Sawant voted against the confirmation of new police chief Kathleen O'Toole, the only council member to do so. Why? It was kind of hard to tell. Here's her 10-minute speech on the matter:
It's easier to decipher her reasoning if you read the text of her speech, much of which is below the jump. But it was still a funny, sort of grandstanding move. O'Toole, Sawant acknowledged, seems committed to police reform, creative about policing, open and sincere, and also only one small part of a larger broken system she's inheriting wholesale. Sawant even mentions her appreciation of O'Toole's role as the first female head of a male-dominated institution.
But, she eventually gets around to arguing, she just doesn't think O'Toole will "challenge the status quo" enough. That part gets lost and muddied in the middle of a long, laundry-list speech about SPD's entrenched problems that have little to do with O'Toole herself. O'Toole, a frank public speaker with a long résumé, has proven so far to be popular with city leaders and the public, though we'll have to see how she, you know, actually runs the police department. Sawant's no vote seemed calculated to draw attention to her political perspective rather than be an actual vote of no confidence—would Sawant really prefer that O'Toole wasn't confirmed and the search process reopened? (I've called her office for comment and will update when I hear back.)
At the same time: The points she made are much clearer when you read them instead of listen to them, and she's not wrong, here, just speechifying. If you want to read Sawant's statement, a link and excerpts are below.
[O'Toole] has expressed a commitment to really build a relationship with the community. She calls for a tiered approach for policing protests, in which riot gear police are used strategically, and only pulled out if they are absolutely necessary. Unauthorized protests would be met with bike police first. She has invited the ACLU to work on the SPD’s planning committee, as she did in Boston.
All that would be welcome change—and I am happy to support any such positive moves. Also positive is that a woman will be at the head of what has been and still is a male-dominated bastion.
However, I have not seen sufficient evidence that she would be willing to challenge the status quo of the police and the political establishment. The DOJ investigation clearly shows that a thorough-going fundamental, structural change is necessary to rectify the deeply problematic state of affairs, a state that has been decades in the making.
Ms. O’Toole has said that she would like to run SPD like a business. By that she means she wants SPD to be efficient and accountable. While I don’t doubt her sincerity at all, that is troubling to me, since private businesses and corporations are NOT accountable to working people, they are accountable to the profits of a few. Private businesses keep their affairs closed and secret. The opposite is needed for a public service, for policing in alliance with the communities, for accountability, for transparency...
I think that if Ms. O’Toole is indeed sincere and serious about overhauling the department, and carrying out even the steps she herself has outlined, she will run into bitter opposition and obstacles from the entrenched forces in the SPD and the political establishment. This is not a comment on her, because this is not something that can be accomplished by one person. We know we have a Community Police Commission, but it is neither elected nor has any binding authority over the SPD. What we need is a democratically elected civilian review board, with real powers over the SPD to hold them really accountable. If Ms. O’Toole is willing to take steps towards that, I will be happy to do everything in my power to help her.