Smart Power: Transforming Seattle’s Police Department
An Insight from the 2015 Public Safety Summit
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One day in late 2013, Kathleen O’Toole received one of the more startling phone calls of her career. A headhunter wanted to know if she had any interest in becoming Seattle’s new police chief. In some ways, the timing could not have been worse. O’Toole, a former Boston police chief and Massachusetts public safety secretary, had recently returned to the United States following a six-year stint in Ireland where she had overseen an effort to reform policing; as she explained at the 2015 Public Safety Summit, “I had just moved home after being 3,000 miles to the east, [so] I wasn’t exactly expecting to move 3,000 miles to the west.”

In other respects, the opportunity was enticing: the Seattle Police Department (SPD) was a department in need of change, and O’Toole had a knack for turning organizations around. In 2012, after a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation found that SPD had used excessive force in the killing of a Native American woodcarver, the City of Seattle reached a settlement with DOJ that resulted in a court-ordered consent decree that compelled the organization to implement sweeping reforms. For some officials, taking over an organization in flux would have been a turnoff; but to O’Toole, who had also helped to reform policing in Northern Ireland in the 1990s and describes herself as “a change driver,” it was a bonus. As she said at the 2015 Public Safety Summit, “most of us…that are addicted to this business can’t pass up opportunities like that.”

Getting Started – and Finding Problems

O’Toole was soon offered and accepted the position; but after moving to Seattle and beginning her work with the force in June 2014, she began to realize that the problems with SPD ran far deeper than she had realized. In a challenge to the court-ordered consent decree, over 120 officers (roughly 10% of the force) filed a lawsuit against DOJ. And the broader controversy surrounding the decree had left many officers feeling discouraged and lethargic. As a result, many had begun, as O’Toole said, to take “the path of least resistance.”

This point became especially clear to the new chief when at a meeting with precinct captains, she inquired about the department’s crime performance and, as O’Toole recalled, the precinct captains replied, “‘Oh pretty good, we think.’” “Nobody was paying attention [to crime],” reflected O’Toole, who added that when they then reviewed crime rates (the first time the department had done that in a year), they found a “steady increase” across the board.

In short, O’Toole had to ensure that SPD not only conformed with the court-ordered consent decree; she also had to find a way improve the force’s public image, reinvigorate the officers themselves, and, above all, make sure that she and her staff redoubled their efforts to defend the city. In other words, O’Toole had to find a way, as the chief told The Seattle Times, to get everyone—the DOJ, the community, and her staff—to “row in the same direction” and make Seattle a safer place.

When we engage in collaborative reform with mutual respect and when everybody’s voices are heard, we’ll succeed.

Kathleen O’Toole
Seattle Police Chief

Changing SPD’s Culture

From day one on the job, O’Toole prioritized efforts to implement the reforms required by the consent decree, most notably how and when officers should use force and weapons; how and when officers should stop and detain; what constitutes ‘bias-free’ policing; and professional accountability.

At the same time, following her meeting with the precinct captains, and other interactions that betrayed the department’s “lethargy,” she realized that she needed to undertake a larger effort to jumpstart the organization. “The hard-working police officers in that organization felt they were all being painted with a broad brush and [were] really demoralized,” explained O’Toole.

Thus, O’Toole sought to reshape the organization’s culture. One of her first steps was a listening tour that brought her in contact with community leaders, political officials, and her rank-and-file staff. She framed these conversations with two main points—how to “enhance” public trust in the SPD and how to implement the consent decree. However, she also made a point of listening to what her team had to say and considering the issues they raised. This was in part because, after conducting similar listening tours in her previous posts, she had come to realize that “the people who…have the best answers to challenges are those who work and live on the frontlines.” The move also stemmed from her belief that people across the organization would only buy in if she created an environment of “mutual respect [in which] everybody’s voices are heard.”

O’Toole simultaneously retooled her staff. This included tapping a young officer who exhibited enormous potential, Carmen Best, as deputy chief. (As O’Toole said, Best was “one of those people you come across in your career and say, ‘That’s somebody I need to tap on the shoulder and give an opportunity to.’”) She also replaced many career cops in the department’s key operational positions (e.g., the legal counsel and the heads of Human Resources and Information Technology) with people trained in those fields. As O’Toole told attendees at the Summit, she felt SPD needed to “put round pegs in round holes.” Finally, she turned to the private sector, recruiting an executive from Amazon to become the department’s Chief Information Officer. The message was clear: SPD was ready to innovate and willing to work with non-traditional hires to do so.

O’Toole has also implemented an extensive training program. The regimen, which occupies an average of a month of each staff member’s time per year, focuses on (among other things) de-escalation and “failing forward” and encourages officers to engage in reflective journaling and self-evaluations to analyze their performance. According to O’Toole, who has sat in on some of the sessions, the trainings, though expensive, are an invaluable investment because it means her staff will understand from day one the service-oriented ethos she is trying to instill. “People watch TV and think [policing] is all about car chases and gunfights…” she explained. “We have to attract the right people who understand that policing if done correctly is a vocation, it’s not just a job and most of it is all about service.”

Technology, Partnerships, and Operational Change

While O’Toole has focused extensively on the more abstract goal of cultural reform, she has also made multiple structural changes to the organization. One of the most important of these is embracing modern policing technology and management systems. To make the department’s efforts to monitor crime more systematic, she has worked with her staff and partnered with experts at Seattle University to (among other things) create a new system to evaluate community-policing efforts and develop and analyze metrics from new community-policing micro-plans. SPD has also sharpened its presence on Twitter; hosted hackathons with experts from Amazon, the University of Washington, and the local hacker community; and recently began piloting the use of body cameras. This has created some challenges (including how to manage public records requests for the voluminous amounts of data that cameras produce), but the innovation exemplifies how O’Toole is pushing the department to the cutting edge.

The manner in which O’Toole has used technology to strengthen relationships between SPD and local universities and businesses is emblematic of her broader effort to forge partnerships between SPD and key stakeholders. Before taking the job, she spoke extensively with the city’s political establishment, including Mayor Ed Murray, who embraced her candidacy and publicly stated that police reform and the implementation of the consent decree was his top priority. Since arriving in Seattle, O’Toole has developed a strong rapport with the police union. Many colleagues had warned O’Toole that the union could be difficult to work with and that it was especially likely to be intransigent to O’Toole because of officer resistance to the consent decree.

Yet O’Toole and the union have worked together on many issues, including enforcing a social media policy that some officers initially fought on first-amendment grounds. As O’Toole recalled, the union president “stood shoulder to shoulder with [her] and basically told them [the officers resisting the policy] to grow up and seek employment elsewhere if they didn’t like the rules in Seattle.”

The Path Ahead

Having fostered an atmosphere of “mutual respect” and equipped her department with the tools and partners it needs to succeed, O’Toole has replaced a lethargic atmosphere with a sense of urgency. With hopes of channeling this energy and moving forward quickly, she and her team are working closely with the DOJ-appointed monitor to make progress on the consent decree. To that end, they have developed internal metrics to hold themselves accountable and complement the monitor’s analyses. The result has been a collaborative and mutually respectful relationship with the monitor, one that, O’Toole believes, can serve as a model for departments in similar positions across the country.

Just how soon SPD will be able to move past the consent decree remains to be seen. In some respects, the department is showing progress: SPD reported a 34% drop in auto thefts late in 2014, and the lawsuit that some SPD officers had filed against DOJ was recently thrown out. At the same time, the court-appointed monitor emphasized in his most recent assessment that even though the agency has “moved closer…to where it needs to be,” “significant work” remains to be fully compliant with the consent decree.

As SPD strives for this aim, it can take comfort in the fact that in O’Toole, it has a leader who both believes in the possibility of change and has a strategy to make it happen. At the Summit, she cited the concept of “smart power,” a notion developed by Harvard’s Joseph Nye that a leader must blend conciliatory and forceful leadership techniques, as her guiding tenet. She also emphasized that “the path to change begins with belief” and “failure is not an option.”

The Seattle Police Department is well on its way toward change, and it has a determined agent driving it.

Very few people out there know what policing is all about. People watch TV and think it’s all about car chases and gunfights. And sometimes we’re attracting people who think it’s about car chases and gunfights. We have to attract the right people who understand that it’s not just a job, it’s a vocation. Most of it is about service.

Kathleen O’Toole
Seattle Police Chief


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