Photo by ASSOCIATED PRESS
Kathleen O’Toole, formerly of Marblehead, is the Seattle Police chief.
By GAYLA CAWLEY
Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, a Marblehead High graduate, has been invited to sit with First Lady Michelle Obama during President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday.
O’Toole started her career with the Boston Police Department and became its commissioner, the only woman to hold that position. She was superintendent of the MDC Police, lieutenant colonel of the Massachusetts State Police, and Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety. She also served as chief general for Ireland’s national police force, and became the Seattle Police chief in 2014. She is a 1972 graduate of Marblehead High and 1976 graduate of Boston College, where she also served as director of the alumni association.
O’Toole will join 20 others who have been selected to sit with the First Lady during the speech, with one seat remaining empty to represent victims of gun violence, who no longer have a voice, according to a published report.
O’Toole said she received the call from Roy Austin Jr., deputy assistant to the President for the Office of Urban Affairs, Justice and Opportunity in the White House, at around 8:30 p.m. Pacific time last Sunday, Jan. 3. She said she wasn’t expecting a call from the White House at that point, especially considering it was 11:30 p.m. on the East Coast.
“I think I was fairly stunned at first,” O’Toole said about being selected to sit with Michelle Obama. “I was just trying to process it all. It’s certainly an honor.”
O’Toole said by nature, she prefers to keep a low profile, despite having ended up in high-profile positions throughout her career. She said the opportunity is “humbling” and feels that she’s not only representing her community, but police officers in general. She said she just happens to be the person who gets to sit in the seat Tuesday.
O’Toole said it is a difficult time in policing and that officers and others in the field need to “work hard to rebuild trust.” She said with she’s been trying to focus more on enhancing community trust with the police.
O’Toole said she believes she was selected because she has worked hard on police reform over the past few years. She said she was hired as the Seattle Police Chief to take on a reform project in the city, based on a consent decree the city entered into with the U.S. Justice Department, regarding excessive police force and discriminatory policing.
O’Toole said because of their compliance with the consent decree, the Seattle Police Department is now “well down the road to reform” and other police departments are now turning to them to learn from their experiences.
“I don’t want to claim we have all the answers,” O’Toole said. “If we can share some of the knowledge with others, that’s a great thing.”
O’Toole also did reform work in Northern Ireland during her time as chief inspector of the country’s national police force and recently through her consulting work on a project in East Haven, Conn.
For the latter, O’Toole said East Haven had entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice as well. She said officers had gone to jail for civil rights violations of members of the Latin community in East Haven. She said the city was looking for a compliance expert to be certain the town met the requirements of the consent decree.
“Fortunately, they were able to turn that around,” O’Toole said.
O’Toole said she is proud of her North Shore roots. She said she still has many close friends in the area. Coincidentally, on the night of her appointment as Seattle Police Chief, the Seattle Mariners were playing the Boston Red Sox. She said she still feels angst when the two teams play each other. She said the same goes for when the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots play each other, as they did in the last Super Bowl.
“If not for their support, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” O’Toole said about those on the North Shore. “I feel like I’m representing a lot of people when I go to Washington this week.”