Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole to step down at end of year

By Steve Miletich, Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole will step down at the end of the year, according to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, ending months of speculation about O’Toole’s future amid a tumultuous time in city government.

O’Toole will leave her post on Dec. 31, and Deputy Chief Carmen Best will serve as interim chief beginning Jan. 1, the mayor’s office said in a news release.

Durkan, who is expected to launch a nationwide search for a new chief, has scheduled a news conference at 11 a.m. Monday at City Hall to announce the next steps and comment on the city’s ongoing police-reform effort.

Durkan has previously expressed her regard for O’Toole, saying she would retain her as chief, and O’Toole is known to hold Durkan in high esteem.

But O’Toole has been mulling her future since May, when former Mayor Ed Murray, who selected her in 2014, announced he wouldn’t seek re-election because of allegations he sexually abused teens decades ago. O’Toole’s husband, Dan, also was rebounding from serious health problems.

She nearly resigned then, but decided to stay at the urging of others to help usher the city through a difficult period.

Her departure is consistent with her professional life. O’Toole has spent much of her career as what she calls a “change agent,” working with police agencies in the U.S. and Ireland to carry out reforms, rather than as long-term leader. O’Toole served as Boston’s first female police commissioner from 2004 to 2006.

O’Toole has been widely praised for her efforts to turn around the Seattle Police Department in accordance with a federally mandated consent decree, signed in 2012,  requiring the department to adopt reforms to address a history of excessive force and biased policing.

The announcement of her departure comes at a critical time, as U.S. District Judge James Robart is considering the city’s pending request to be found in full and effective compliance with the consent decree.

Durkan’s victory in the Nov. 7 mayoral election made it easier for O’Toole to cement her previous plans to leave. It was Durkan, who in her previous role as U.S. Attorney in Western Washington, oversaw, along with the U.S. Justice Department, the investigation of the Seattle Police Department that led to the consent decree.

Robart has previously noted he would be watching the outcome of the mayoral election.

O’Toole is expected to continue working with Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, a post to which she was nominated in May to help bring about reforms in response to controversies involving that nation’s police force.

She previously served as chief inspector of Garda Siochana Inspectorate, an agency that inspects the operations and administration of Ireland’s national police force, from 2006 to 2012. She also was a member of the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, the Patten Commission, which was established in 1998 to inquire into policing in Northern Ireland.

O’Toole also is expected to participate in reforms efforts involving the Chicago Police Department and possibly the Baltimore Police Department.

Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw praised O’Toole.

“With the work we’ve done around police accountability, her leadership has helped move us from where we were, in trouble with the Justice Department, to a place where we’re on the cusp of a big success,” Bagshaw said. “I’m hopeful we’ll continue from where she’s brought us to closer and better community involvement.”

In choosing a new police chief, the city must always weigh the advantages of an outsider’s perspective against the value of local experience, Bagshaw said.

“That’s something you balance,” she said. “You can bring in someone from the outside with (O’Toole’s) talent and respect. But she didn’t have the connection to our community. You can bring in somebody local, but does that individual have national and international respect and experience?”

Baghsaw said internal candidates, including Deputy Chief Best, should be considered as the city picks a new permanent chief.

“It may be we can look internally again, because we’ve got some excellent people who have risen up through the ranks,” she said. “(Best is) somebody I’ve known and worked with for years. She would be a super candidate to consider, and there are others (in the department) as well.”

The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, the union that represents more than 1,300 sworn officers and sergeants, issued a statement Monday thanking O’Toole for her leadership.

“Chief O’Toole guided the department through the very difficult task of completing all of the assessments required under the Department of Justice Settlement Agreement,” the guild said. “This was done in record time and that is a testament to her persistence and her ability to put people in the right positions, so that compliance with the DOJ Settlement Agreement could be completed.”

The guild also congratulated Best on her pending appointment as interim chief.

“Chief Best has come up through the ranks and SPOG has full confidence in her ability to lead the department and to continue the work that was done by Chief O’Toole,” the statement said.

In addition to the police-chief announcement, Durkan is set to announce that Barb Graff, director of Emergency Management, and Harold Scoggins, chief of the Seattle Fire Department, will remain in their positions.

Seattle Times staff reporter Daniel Beekman contributed to this story.