Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole speaks with ethnic media on August 12, 2014. • Photo by Chris Leggett
Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole speaks with ethnic media on August 12, 2014. • Photo by Chris Leggett

Recently appointed Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, the city’s first female police chief, met with ethnic media on Tuesday, August 12 to address questions about how she plans to engage Seattle’s diverse communities. O’Toole was appointed as Seattle’s police chief in June.

As a former Boston police commissioner, O’Toole contends that Boston and Seattle share some similarities that make her transition into the role a comfortable and recognizable one. However, having cancelled on a previously arranged press conference with Seattle’s ethnic media, O’Toole apologized for her recent lack of availability as she made this transition. She thanked the media in attendance, adding that she hoped it was the first of many opportunities to connect.

In response to a media inquiry as to whether she’d worked in a Chinatown or neighborhood similar to Seattle’s International District before, O’Toole responded that she had, pointing to her prior experience in Boston. The city features its own Chinatown district and what O’Toole describes as “a very diverse community there.” O’Toole began her policing career in Boston, eventually becoming that city’s first female police commissioner between February 2004 and May 2006. After leaving this position, O’Toole held a role in Ireland as Chief Inspector of the Garda Inspectorate.

O’Toole also acknowledged concerns about increasing diversity within the Seattle Police Department. She said the city must have a police force that reflects the makeup of the community.

“First of all, we need to establish trust and relationships with the community,” O’Toole said. “I really feel that, wherever you are in the world, we need to have police services that [represent] the communities that they serve.”

Chief O'Toole takes questions from ethnic media on August 12, 2014. • Photo by City of Seattle
Chief O’Toole takes questions from ethnic media on August 12, 2014. • Photo by City of Seattle

O’Toole said a conscious effort is underway to encourage this in future recruiting drives. O’Toole also mentioned the possibility of targeted advertising in recruitment efforts “to ensure a good candidate pool.” She added that this effort extended to police personnel both sworn and unsworn.

“The more people we have that speak your language and represent your culture, the better we’ll all be,” O’Toole said.

O’Toole also addressed the perception that police officers treat members of the ethnic communities differently. A scenario was proposed to O’Toole that involved a Caucasian and an African American, where police may immediately assume the former is a victim and the latter is a perpetrator.

O’Toole sympathized with such situations, expressed regret that some have encountered them, and quickly asserted that she would not tolerate them as Seattle’s new police chief. O’Toole suggested that the problem was perhaps historically ingrained and would disappear in time as the police force becomes more diverse.

“In policing sometimes, for many years, I think maybe we recruited the wrong people,” O’Toole said, who added that more than 80 percent of the complaints that came across her desk in Boston were for “rudeness.”

After speaking with ethnic media reporters for approximately one hour, O’Toole took part in the city’s fifth “Find It, Fix It” community walk, which took place at Rainier Beach’s Light Rail Station. The community walks are intended to gauge and solve problems that contribute to public safety issues.

That same day, the neighborhood was on alert after reports of a sexual assault on a young girl in her own home at about 5:30 a.m. in a home at 53rd Avenue South and South Wabash Street. The girl was assaulted at gunpoint and was unable to call to other family members in the house until after the assailant left. The assailant entered the home through an open window.

“The only way we’ll address some of the issues that are frustrating all of us right now is to join forces, harness our resources, and we won’t give up,” O’Toole said at the community walk.

Related stories:

Murray offers solutions to Seattle public safety crisis

Mayor Murray calls on communities to join public safety efforts

Mayor speaks with API leaders about diversity, violence, and education

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