Rebuilding Trust and Value: The Transformation of the Seattle Police Department

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Policing, Public Safety, Public Engagement, Community Trust, Transformation, Innovation, Culture Change, Change Management, Leading Change, Human Capital, High Performing Teams, Psychological Safety, Micro-Community Policing, Organizational Design, Information Technology, Sustaining Change

Learning Objective

This case study explores the leadership challenges transforming the culture of an organization, building a high performing team, generating stakeholder buy-in, developing new partnerships, redesigning structures, systems, and processes, leveraging technology, harnessing data and analytics, and establishing new metrics for success.


In June 2014, when Kathleen O’Toole became the Chief of the Seattle Police Department, she faced challenges on multiple levels. To begin with, she was taking the reins of an organization that was desperately in need of change. SPD had recently reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that had resulted in a court-ordered consent decree. In addition, even though O’Toole was a highly accomplished police leader who had led organizational transformations on multiple continents, she was an outsider in Seattle. She would therefore have to build up trust within SPD and the community. Finally, the organization itself was languishing from lethargy. The new chief discovered this at an early meeting when she asked precinct captains how SPD was doing with crime, and they responded, “Pretty good – we think.”

“Rebuilding Trust and Value: The Transformation of The Seattle Police Department” tells the story of how O’Toole navigated these multifaceted challenges and led the successful remaking of SPD. Initially, she focused on building relationships with the community, creating a leadership team that blended internal and external perspectives, and taking a variety of steps to effect a cultural shift. Having laid that foundation, O’Toole then found ways to generate new value by introducing revamped systems, processes, and technologies, especially as it related to data analytics. Finally, she concluded her tenure by ensuring that the reforms she had implemented would be sustained, most notably by working closely with DOJ and other leaders in an attempt to move the consent decree toward resolution.

By December 2017, when O’Toole announced that she would step down at the end of the calendar year, she had made an enormous impact on SPD and the community. Under her leadership, the city had consistently received high marks for its progress in meeting the requirements of the consent decree. SPD had also made significant progress on a variety of performance indicators, including decreasing the average response time to life-threatening incidents, enhancing the organization’s capacity to identify and respond to people in crisis and hate crimes, and curtailing officer’s use-of-force.

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