In January 2016, Kathleen O’Toole, Chief of the Seattle Police Department (SPD), received wonderful, if startling news. White House officials wanted to know if she would be interested in sitting in the First Lady’s box as an honored guest at President Obama’s final State of the Union address.
Nineteen months earlier, when O’Toole had become SPD’s chief, it would have been hard to imagine SPD receiving Presidential recognition. In 2012, SPD and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had agreed upon a consent decree mandating that SPD engage in significant reform to curb the “unnecessary and excessive use of force” and address concerns about discriminatory policing. Unfortunately, the initial reports from Monitor Merrick Bobb evaluating SPD’s progress identified further problems, namely “dug-in” resistance and “foot-dragging” within SPD—in other words, a refusal to work collaboratively with DOJ on reform.
O’Toole, her team, city officials, and their partners at DOJ and the Monitoring Team shifted the tide by fostering a climate that prized teamwork. Within SPD, O’Toole convened an internal leadership team to help foster culture change and focus energy on reform. Externally, she and her staff reached out to the union; community groups; and City Attorney Pete Holmes, whose team helped to negotiate the consent decree and continues to work with SPD on implementation. They also developed a mutually respectful relationship and friendship with Monitor Merrick Bobb. Finally, SPD and DOJ have striven to strengthen their partnership. In particular, the chief has worked closely with Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, and Acting United States Attorney Annette Hayes—both of whom are heavily involved in the enforcement of the consent decree. According to O’Toole, Gupta and Hayes have been “engaging, supportive, and transparent, not just in Seattle, but nationally.”
Nonetheless, that collaborative spirit was not guaranteed to develop, nor will it necessarily endure as O’Toole and her team endeavor to complete the reform required by the consent decree. Rather, they have had to navigate—and will continue to confront—a challenging question: how can they simultaneously build trust, effect change, and ultimately position SPD to achieve positive transformation as a result of DOJ oversight?
Since the mid 1990s, DOJ has played a growing role in local law enforcement reform. In 1994, in the aftermath of the 1991 Rodney King incident in Los Angeles, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which gave DOJ the power to investigate local law enforcement agencies that may have “systemic problems – such as use of excessive force, or racial profiling.” In the event that it discovers a department with problematic trends, DOJ can then effect change by pushing for a “consent decree”; this is a legally binding document that outlines a set of reforms, is agreed upon by both parties, and is overseen by a judge.
As of March 2015, DOJ had completed 65 investigations of local law enforcement organizations, leading to 32 reform agreements. Unfortunately, the consent decrees sometimes led to friction between DOJ and local officials. Seattle—where there had been disagreement over (among other things) who should serve as the Monitor overseeing the police—was a case in point.
In May 2014, amid the acrimony surrounding Seattle’s consent decree, Seattle’s Mayor Ed Murray nominated O’Toole to become SPD’s chief. O’Toole was an attractive candidate in part because she had served as Commissioner of the Boston Police Department; Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety; and Chief Inspector of the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, Ireland’s oversight body to the national police service. In addition, O’Toole had an intimate understanding of DOJ and consent decrees, having most recently served as the Joint Compliance Expert overseeing the consent decree in East Haven, Connecticut. Most observers felt that East Haven and DOJ had established a productive, collaborative relationship.
One of O’Toole’s takeaways from these experiences was the importance of engagement. The chief therefore spent “countless hours” during her first months in Seattle meeting with rank-and-file officers, community groups, union leaders, and a range of city officials. From O’Toole’s perspective, this outreach was crucial to disarm potential critics (outside leaders, she noted, tend to attract skepticism); glean lessons from front-line staff and citizens, who, she noted, are often most in-tune with problems and opportunities; and begin to cultivate an atmosphere of teamwork. “I learned very early in my career,” O’Toole reflected, “that the adversarial approach doesn’t work, that we really do need to engage both internally and externally, we do need to listen.”
Meanwhile, the tenor of SPD’s relationship with DOJ began to change as well. Soon after O’Toole arrived in Seattle, she received a call from Vanita Gupta, a newly appointed Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, who as the head of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division would be heavily involved in the implementation of DOJ’s consent decrees. Gupta wanted to know if O’Toole would be open to “sitting down” to discuss the situation in Seattle. From O’Toole’s perspective, this provided a much-needed “breath of fresh air to the role.” It also served as a jumping off point for a more extensive dialogue in which Gupta and O’Toole discussed the challenges facing SPD and its partnership with DOJ. Equally important, this contributed to the establishment of an outstanding working relationship. O’Toole said, “It’s clear to me that DOJ…and Vanita in particular are there to support us. They’re as interested in our success as we are….” Gupta concurred, lauding Chief O’Toole for “creat[ing] a different tone.”
O’Toole also understood the importance of marrying this collaborative spirit with action. This was in no small part because, as the chief soon discovered, the recent friction surrounding the consent decree had started to interfere with the day-to-day demands of policing. Not long after beginning her work at SPD, O’Toole was in a meeting with precinct captains when she asked about the effectiveness of SPD’s crime-fighting operations. Her staff responded, “Great, we think.” The chief realized that, amid all of the attention focused on the consent decree, no one had been tracking crime. She therefore launched a new SeaStat process, which is comparable to CompStat and enabled SPD to start tracking crime and crime-fighting efforts more carefully. To the chief, this change was emblematic of the importance of balancing short- and long-term exigencies. “We’ve totally embraced reform and we’ve put lots and lots of effort into that,” O’Toole said, “but we have the day-to-day challenges, we still have to run police agencies and we can’t lose sight of that.”
Meanwhile, O’Toole and her team put in place long-term reform initiatives to ensure that SPD was satisfying the requirements of the consent decree. A case in point was a new community micro-policing plan that SPD has developed in partnership with Seattle University. As part of the program, SPD is surveying residents in the city’s different neighborhoods to understand what their priorities and concerns are and then assigning officers to those neighborhoods to work with them to find solutions. As O’Toole explained, this is an outstanding way to strengthen ties with the community and at the same time shift community sentiment. “Crime is a problem,” O’Toole explained, “but fear of crime and perception of crime are equally problematic, so we need to work with our communities to determine what’s important to them.”
Another critical piece of SPD’s reform initiative is a series of new trainings and partnerships. According to Gupta, SPD has developed a “very successful de-escalation program.” At the same time, SPD has striven to forge partnerships and developed extensive trainings to focus on complex challenges like homelessness, addiction, and people in crisis. This signals that SPD is evaluating its challenges holistically and positioning the city to thrive in the face of uncertainty. As O’Toole explained, SPD, like departments in any major city, needs to combat the threats of guns and gangs, but it also cannot lose track of the “more complicated challenges” now affecting the city’s law enforcement landscape.
SPD is also using data and technology to enable and accelerate organizational change. For example, in October 2015, SPD announced a new partnership with Accenture to create a more advanced data analytics platform; this will allow SPD to bolster efficiency and accountability by helping the agency “to consolidate, manage and analyze data relating to police calls and incidents, interactions with the public, use-of-force incidents, administrative processes, officer training and workforce management.” In addition, SPD is one of 21 departments nationwide that joined the White House Police Data Initiative as part of a broader attempt “to enhance transparency and accountability in law enforcement.” SPD also manages an in-car video system in all of the department’s patrol vehicles; and with support from DOJ, SPD launched a program to equip officers with body-worn cameras. According to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and Chief O’Toole, this represents an outstanding way to use technology to bolster “community trust.”
Yet the most significant aspect of SPD’s use of data and analytics may very well be the creation of the Real Time Crime Center (RTCC). As department officials explained, this is “the engine of SPD’s data-driven policing efforts.” In particular, the facility serves as a convening place where SPD officials can host meetings and come together to analyze data. It also serves as a dissemination tool through which the department can share information with officers so that they can apply information in “real time” in the field. From the perspective of SPD officials, the creation of RTCC is a major reason that the department achieved a 6.6 percent decrease in overall crime from 2014 to 2015.
Finally, SPD, with support and advice from DOJ, has taken a number of steps to institutionalize change. This includes creating a force investigation team and a force review board. Legislation is currently being developed to enhance independent oversight, including through the Office of Professional Accountability and the Community Police Commission. The Commission is important, Gupta explained, because it provides a venue where citizens can provide input; it also serves as another outlet through which O’Toole can leverage and deepen the relationships she has built throughout her time in the city. Reflecting on a community forum she attended, Gupta said, “Kathy knows everyone in the room…and everyone in the community knows her.”
By the end of 2015, many powerful observers were taking note of Seattle’s efforts. In a visit to Seattle that September, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the city would receive a $1.5 million grant to combat human trafficking and lauded the city’s progress on police reform. (DOJ officials (including Acting U.S. Attorney Hayes), who had also been promoting SPD’s positive work, accompanied the Attorney General on the trip.) Similarly, in a November 2015 report, the Seattle Police Monitor gave SPD “high marks” for being in “initial compliance” with key aspects of the consent decree. The Monitor also praised SPD for “reaching a ‘significant stepping stone along the path toward full and effective compliance and notable improvement from the beginning of the consent decree, when review of force…was superficial at best.’”
As Gupta observed, Seattle had gotten some “quick wins,” so SPD had momentum on its side.
Room for improvement remains. From O’Toole’s perspective, the biggest challenge is “consent decree fatigue.” Thus, the City, DOJ, and the Monitoring Team are working together to identify a timeline and deliverables for what SPD needs to accomplish. The chief hopes that this will give her staff a “light at the end of the tunnel,” and Gupta is sympathetic to these concerns. “We don’t want to be in a jurisdiction a day longer than we have to,” she said. Thus, she is working with Seattle to establish barometers for progress while at the same time making sure that SPD is in full compliance.
Navigating questions like how to finalize the consent decree can sometimes lead to differences of opinion, but in O’Toole’s view, this is part of a healthy relationship. “We work collaboratively, but we engage in respectful, spirited discussions,” the chief said. “Spirited discussions and debates have produced many good results.”
O’Toole also sees this dialectic process—in which stakeholders sometimes disagree but take from their conflicting perspectives a new, better result—as emblematic of how consent decrees can benefit an organization. She elaborated, “Reform is a good thing. The consent decree has created the sense of urgency required to get the job done in Seattle…I like to look at the glass as being half full…. Yes, it is hard work, but without a sense of urgency, it’s more difficult to change an organization.”
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