December 21, 2016

Race and Policing Issues Spark Controversy; “Embrace Reform,” Seattle Police Chief Urges

Calling on police departments to “embrace reform,” Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole emphasized how her priorities had changed completely in her 35 years in law enforcement. “Everybody wants to talk about guns and drugs, and, yes, we need to talk about crime and crime rates, but my most complicated issue right now is first of all equity and social justice in our policing, in our community. And also it’s the intersection of public safety and public health.” 

Speaking at an all-day policy forum held earlier this month at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Ms. O’Toole noted the paramount need for trust between police and their communities, along with multi-disciplinary efforts, new training and new policies. “And my number one priority,” she said, “is focusing on the next generation and the relationship between our children and our police. Because if we are going to succeed we need the trust of our community. Without that trust we as police will fail. And the best place to start is with the next generation, so that’s my number one priority right now.”

More than two years after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, law enforcement and government officials, scholars, student leaders and community members gathered to address the issue of “Racial Justice and Policing in America.” The sessions focused on policing, community relations, accountability, racial justice, profiling, human rights and effective law enforcement.

In presenting the first keynote speech of the day, Ms. O’Toole offered extensive observations from her police experience in Boston, where she had served for many years, eventually becoming the first female police commissioner in that city’s history; in Ireland, where for six years she was chief inspector of the Irish national police service; and in Seattle, where she assumed her current post with a mandate for reform, in June 2014.

“In all my years of policing,” she said, ”there’s never been a more challenging time, but with that challenge comes opportunity.” She described the past two years in Seattle as a very difficult period, with the department under a federal consent decree, required to curb excessive force and biased policing.

“Not only did the department deserve that consent decree, it is a much better place as a result of that decree. When I arrived I said we need to wipe this slate clean. We need to embrace reform as a good thing. Change is not bad.”

With reforms already in progress in Seattle at the time of the Ferguson shooting, Ms. O’Toole cited Seattle’s success with new policies on the use of force in crisis intervention, new policies and training for police and an emphasis on de-escalation.

“We’ve reduced our use of force by 55 percent just in the last year and a half,” she said. “We’ve spent a lot of time on de-escalation, and our officers are handling things a lot differently now. We’ve done a lot of work in mental health crisis intervention. Our police officers are working with health professionals, learning how to engage and how to de-escalate those very complicated situations.

“We’re doing 10,000 mental health crisis interventions each year now, and we’re giving our officers the training they need to deal with those situations. Now, in only 1.6 percent of those situations are we using force, and most of that is minimus force. Before the training, 70 percent of those cases involved force. New policies, new training, new thinking can make a difference in our communities.”

Pointing out the wisdom of community policing, as opposed to the war on crime of her early career and the “wrong turn” after 9/11, Ms. O’Toole highlighted the importance of positive police-community relationships. “As I was fighting to restore community policing money after 9/11, I had to say to people in D.C., “Look, it’s not going to be some intelligence czar in Washington who discovers the next threat to our community. If we’re lucky it’ll be the cop on the beat in the city or town, but more likely it will be a member of our community who will come forward and talk to the police.”

Ms. O’Toole also commented on the importance of hiring officers who reflect the communities they serve, and ”not people who think that policing is all about the gun fighting and car chases they see on television, but people who understand that policing is a vocation.” Emphasizing the police officer as guardian rather than warrior, she noted the success of hiring efforts in her increasingly diverse department.

“We’ve hired young responsible, articulate, idealistic people from very different backgrounds with very different professional and personal experiences,” she continued. “It’s very exciting to see. They’ll make our department so much more effective.”

In her response to a follow-up question from Princeton Council member Heather Howard, who is also a lecturer in public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, Ms. O’Toole stated that ”the use-of-force policy that requires de-escalation applies in Princeton as well as in Seattle and other towns and cities throughout the country.” She stated that new policies and new training and acceptance of change “are critical at this point.”

Princeton Police Chief Nick Sutter, who applauded the “excellent forum,” echoed Ms. O’Toole’s message, observing that her proposals have been implemented in Princeton and are consistent with best practices as outlined in President Obama’s report on 21st Century Policing. Mr. Sutter summed up the comments made by Chief O’Toole, and also by retired Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who spoke later in the day on the philosophy that “the police are the public and the public are the police. Without collaboration and trust, neither can be successful.”

Forum moderator Ben Jealous, former president and CEO of the NAACP, now visiting professor at Princeton University, also emphasized the necessity for all factions to work together “to make a functional relationship between the police and the communities most in need.” He added, “The point is we are all Americans. They are all American children and all our responsibility. If we solve this, if we all come together, life is better for all of us. Let us come together and own the fact that these are all our kids.”