Chief O’Toole marks Year 1 as use of force controversies still loom over SPD

O'Toole walking the streets of Pike/Pine last year (Photo: Tim Durkan)

O’Toole on the streets of Pike/Pine last year (Photo: Tim Durkan)

It’s been one year since Kathleen O’Toole was sworn into office as Seattle’s first female Chief of Police. At the time, O’Toole laid out four themes she said would define her term. So far, she’s been spot on.

O’Toole’s first theme was to restore public trust through carrying out orders of the federal consent decree — a DOJ mandated process to overhaul the department in the wake of several excessive force violations by SPD officers.

James Robart, the judge overseeing the decree, recently commended the department for the reforms its made. However, The Stranger reported Hobart also said he was “very frustrated and upset” after reading news reports that plans for a citizen oversight board were being hatched outside his courtroom.

The plan, which had the backing of Mayor Ed Murray, was to make the Community Police Commission a permanent citizen oversight board through legislation to be introduced later this year. The CPC was created as a temporary body in 2012 to help implement orders of the consent decree.

While robust citizen oversight of the department has broad support, the judge said any SPD oversight reforms would have to be cleared through him. In a statement, Murray said he got the message.

The direction today from Judge Robart was clear: any reforms must align with the consent decree and be approved by the Court. As planned, I will be working with the Department of Justice, Federal Monitor, CPC, labor unions and City Attorney to achieve meaningful reforms to our civilian oversight system and improve accountability.

The second theme O’Toole laid out last year was to restore department pride, with the qualification that she would hold bad actors accountable. “Nobody dislikes rogue cops more than good cops,” she said.

That dictum is being put to the test in the wake of Officer Cynthia Whitlach’s July 2014 arrest of William Wingate on Capitol Hill. Wingate — a black, 70-year-old veteran — was standing at 12th and Pike when Whitlatch said she felt threatened by the man, who was carrying the golf club he customarily used as a walking stick.

Following the arrest, which was caught on tape, a Facebook post surfaced wherein Whitlatch said she was “tired of Black people saying poor poor me” when other minorities were persecuted more.

“I was shocked and disappointed to read her comments,” O’Toole said in a statement at the time. “We are working to reform the Seattle Police Department, and behavior of this nature seriously undermines our efforts.”

Whitlatch is currently on paid leave as she awaits the findings of an Office of Police Accountability investigation. In the meantime, some have called for O’Toole to fire Whitlatch outright. The chief says she’ll wait to hear the findings of the report, which is due out later this month.

Below is the chief’s “message to employees” upon her first anniversary with the department. “Instead of negative publicity, the SPD is considered a model in many aspects of policing,” she writes in a message recounting the “department achievements during the past year” and speaking “to the challenges that lie ahead.” She also drops the news that Attorney General Loretta Lynch is due to visit Seattle soon.

Chief O’Toole’s First Year Message to Employees
Written by Public Affairs on July 4, 2015 2:29 pm
Chief O’Toole shared the following ‘thank you’ message to department employees yesterday. She recounts department achievements during the past year and speaks to the challenges that lie ahead. While the message was intended for employees, it is certainly worth sharing with the community we serve.

Having just completed my first year as Chief, I want to thank members of the SPD. Due to your hard work and dedication, we are in a much different place than we were last summer.

The upward trend in crime that began in 2013 has been reversed. Part I crimes are down 13 percent this year. Motor vehicle thefts have been reduced by 30 percent. There have been 1600 fewer car prowls.

Statistics are, of course, one thing. You can also see it and feel it in many parts of the city. Look no further than Westlake Park. I have received so much positive feedback about Westlake and the surrounding area. A number of people have told me it has not looked this way for decades.

This drop in crime did not happen by accident. I asked you to get out there and engage – and you have. Last month, for example, you conducted over 9000 on-views. That is almost 1200 more on-views than were conducted in June 2014. Gun recoveries, as another example, are up 40 percent. As I mentioned at the press conference for Operation Crosstown Traffic a few months back, thanks to your great work, the Seattle Police Department is back in business.

You are doing all this while embracing our reform efforts. The last two Monitor’s semiannual reports (December 2014 and June 2015) have been overwhelmingly positive. Just this week, US District Court Judge James Robart, who is overseeing our Settlement Agreement, praised our ability to work collaboratively with our partners. He was both surprised and encouraged that our new de-escalation training is being hailed as a national model, and added that if he had been told three years ago that the New York Times would feature the Seattle Police Department as an example of how to police correctly, he would not have believed it.

You have a lot to be proud of as members of the Seattle Police Department. Instead of negative publicity, the SPD is considered a model in many aspects of policing. During the past month, Baltimore, Dallas, Orlando, and Louisville police departments have visited us. The NYPD is coming in July. The Attorney General of the United States will also travel here soon. We certainly have much more work to do. We will continue to address concerns about crime and disorder in all parts of the city. We will work hard to strengthen trust between the SPD and our diverse communities. We will also focus on operating the department as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Policing is a very difficult business. No doubt we will face more challenges, but we will continue to confront them head on, together as a team. Hold your heads high. You have a lot to be proud of. Again, thank you!

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One thought on “Chief O’Toole marks Year 1 as use of force controversies still loom over SPD

  1. It really ticks me off that Cynthia Whitlach is on paid leave for months and months, raking in the cash as she sits at home. Her treatment of Mr.Wingate was egregious, and she does not deserve the politically-correct (and slow!) advantage of an OPA investigation. She should have been fired long ago.