Woman Picked for City's Worst Job

Kathleen O'Toole is set to become Seattle's first female police chief, at a time when the police department is in crisis. Can she succeed where the men before her failed?

Woman Picked for City's Worst Job

Joe Mirabella

KATHLEEN O’TOOLE IS ON THE LEFT With Mayor Ed Murray, Council Member Bruce Harrell, and former chief Harry Bailey.

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The day after Barack Obama was elected president, amid the financial collapse of 2008 and as America careened into recession, the Onion declared: "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job." It's a great joke. But it brings up a sobering issue that's been getting a lot of attention recently: the "glass cliff." When minorities and women finally break into high-ranking positions, it tends to be within failing organizations—thereby making their own terms as executives more likely to end in failure.

Dr. Christy Glass, a sociology professor at Utah State University who coauthored a 2013 study on barriers to minority leadership, explained it on NPR on May 19: "If the glass ceiling means that there are invisible barriers that limit the mobility of women and minorities, the glass cliff suggests that when women and minorities are promoted, they tend to be promoted to struggle at firms or to firms in crisis. In other words, they're pushed off the glass cliff."

As it happened, that NPR report aired on the same day former Boston police commissioner Kathleen O'Toole was nominated by Mayor Ed Murray to become Seattle's next police chief. O'Toole is poised, cogent, and eminently qualified. She was until recently the inspector general of Ireland's national police force. And she has a track record of taking on organizations in distress.

Still, it was the fact that O'Toole is set to become Seattle's first female chief that drove headlines around the country.

And just like Obama, and the women featured in that NPR story, she will inherit an organization in crisis. When the Seattle City Council moves to confirm O'Toole as chief next month, a confirmation that Council President Tim Burgess says looks certain, she will take over a Seattle Police Department that is in its most miserable condition in decades. Not only is the SPD under a federal court order to fix a pattern of misconduct, two right-wing cop unions have seized power in the top ranks under the new mayoral administration, an accountability system that is supposed to discipline cops for misconduct is widely regarded as impotent, and public trust is in the gutter.

Because of all this, O'Toole will have a harder task than her male predecessors.

There are several reasons a female or minority candidate might be selected to right a listing ship, says NPR social-science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. Among them: White men may be more inclined to reject job offers at dysfunctional organizations. That seems true in Seattle: The top choice for a permanent chief in 2010 was a white man named Rick Braziel, a former chief in Sacramento, who rejected the offer at the last minute and left the opening for John Diaz, a Latino man who quit as chief after three years of failing to tame the unruly department. Another common reason to pick a woman, Vedantam says, is that an off-track organization may try to show that "it's actually trying to turn the ship around, it's trying to go in a different direction. One way to do that is to try to find a nontraditional leader." That theory jibes with picking the first woman to run a department that, the Feds say, has a pattern of using excessive force and shows problems with racial bias.

But is O'Toole more likely to fail because she's being given the keys to a pigsty, as the "glass cliff" model suggests? Mayor Murray says that had "never crossed my mind," but the city's first gay mayor argues that women, gays, and people of color "have to try twice as hard, and it's almost like we can't fail."

Throw in the pressure of being responsible for public safety, and the can't-fail intensity couldn't be higher. So what could help? Well, first of all, O'Toole may be even more likely to succeed because she's already proved she's strong enough to break through glass ceilings and is supremely prepared. And while I don't pretend to have all the answers, it seems to me that for O'Toole to succeed, she'll also need to clear three hurdles that previous dudes haven't.

Crush the Police Unions

The two unions that represent Seattle's police officers are widely seen as the source of a testosterone-fueled, racially divisive, old-guard culture that got the SPD into the crisis it's in. The unions have both sued to block reform and filed blizzards of labor complaints that obstruct discipline and reform. The larger of the two labor groups, the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, which represents about 1,200 lower-ranking officers, admits to spending most of its time defending cops named in misconduct investigations and publishes a newspaper for police that uses incendiary language to belittle pro-reform officers and fight changes at the SPD. If O'Toole doesn't crush their influence, reform will not happen. Full stop.

Speaking to a packed house at City Hall on May 19, O'Toole made it obvious how different she may be from previous Seattle police chiefs (who were union members themselves). She bluntly acknowledged the "difficult fight" with unions that lay ahead, but she was reluctant to take direct aim. "As far as I am concerned, we will start with a clean slate," O'Toole announced. "I need to sit down with them and see what issues are pending... I think strong lines of communication are absolutely essential." In that press conference, O'Toole also described her number-one priority: restoring public trust in the department.

But in a follow-up interview, O'Toole refused to name a single problem that the unions have created. Naturally, the new chief cannot squabble excessively in the press. But the only way she can restore deep public confidence in the SPD is by showing that she understands the problems those unions created and their threat to long-term reform, and then unapologetically articulating her plan to neutralize them.

Severely Punish Bad Cops

When Mayor Murray appointed Harry Bailey as interim chief in January, the mayor handed over the keys to these unions. Bailey is the former vice president of SPOG, and he quickly promoted union cronies into the top ranks while demoting progressive cops. Meanwhile, the union representing high-ranking cops filed a complaint this month to block the new chief from recruiting officers from outside Seattle to fill high-ranking slots.

Amid all this, Bailey served what seems to be the union's primary agenda: getting cops off the hook for misconduct. Chief Bailey overturned punishments against seven cops who had already been found guilty of misconduct (at the request of a union president). The resulting scandal revealed that Seattle's police-accountability system was made of Swiss cheese. Punishments are rare, the few that occur involve light penalties, many of those verdicts are overturned in backroom deals, and it takes months to resolve a single case. Restoring trust will require O'Toole to collaborate with the city council to rewrite the discipline codes so officers are punished quickly, their punishments are published, and the penalties for deliberate misconduct are severe. After all, what got the SPD into this mess wasn't just misconduct, it was a persistent belief—fostered by the unions—that officers could get away with it.

Be the Public Face of the SPD

The last permanent chief was 33-year SPD veteran John Diaz. He was admittedly uncomfortable speaking to groups, which was an outsize liability when the public needed assurances that reform was afoot. Where Diaz was awkward—and would contort his arms into impossible positions when he spoke at press conferences while equally contorting his logic as he tried to paint the SPD as a healthy organization when it was actually dying on the operating table—O'Toole is frank, funny, and gracious. At City Hall, she spoke confidently, feet planted on the ground, scarcely considering notes. She joked that trying to avoid reporters before her nomination was announced was like being in the "witness protection program."

O'Toole will have to continually deploy that powerful combination of assertiveness and humanity to assure the public that she is turning this ship around (while actually turning the ship around by removing union stooges from the upper decks and punishing problem cops). But moreover, she must be more charismatic than the unions—be a stronger leader—so that her vision of a healthy, responsible, and just department is more persuasive than the good-ol'-boys club the unions promote.

A woman may have just been given the worst job in the city, but there is every reason to believe O'Toole can prevail without falling off the glass cliff. She is more than qualified. But it will take a combination of confrontational chutzpah, charisma, and discipline that the men before her were unable—or unwilling—to show. From what she's shown us so far, I think she can do it. recommended


Comments (28) RSS

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juche 1
"Kathleen O'Toole is set to become Seattle's first female police chief, at a time when the police department is in crisis. Can she succeed where the men before her failed?"

No. Next question, Dominick.
Posted by juche on May 20, 2014 at 9:19 PM · Report this
Edgy headline, give that intern a promotion!
Posted by pioneer on May 20, 2014 at 10:40 PM · Report this
Here's hoping Kethleen O'Toole can succeed where past SPD police chiefs failed. It would truly be great if so long corrupted a system can finally get the overhaul it so badly needs at long last!
Posted by auntie grizelda on May 20, 2014 at 10:42 PM · Report this
re @3: Rats! Make that Kathleen O'Toole.
Posted by auntie grizelda on May 21, 2014 at 12:05 AM · Report this
Seattlebcc 5
I really hope she does succeed and she most likely will only because in this day and age most men too easily hand over their testicles to women in power and women in general for fear of losing theirs. She actually held her position in Boston for only 2 years and involved a less than savory scandal with regard to pepper spray usage and the collateral damage death of a Victoria Snelgrove, before moving to Ireland. She does have good credentials and management skills in Ireland, but being in Seattle which has seen its share of officers killed in the line of duty over the last few years, I believe she will either see a shortage of officers on her watch which will leave because of the high risk, difficult bureaucratic BS that plagues most police departments in the US, as well as the added pressure that will certainly be applied by a new woman police chief trying to prove her mettle. This is not to say that I don't believe she wont be a good fit. I just hope she reserves judgment, listens very carefully not only to the "yes men" below her but holds skip level meetings with those in the lower ranks and patrols (without supervisor observation) to see what it is really like out there and what these guys really have to contend with day-to-day and not just put cameras on them to catch the officer not talking pretty enough to the criminal while they are being handcuffed for shooting a gun into a crowd. Only then, do I believe that she will be worth the quarter million in wages she will be earning of taxpayer money, while meeting Justice Department goals and getting control of the explosive crime in Seattle.
Posted by Seattlebcc on May 21, 2014 at 6:06 AM · Report this
@2: The headline is a reference to the Onion headline when Obama was elected.
Posted by namey name on May 21, 2014 at 10:04 AM · Report this
"Woman With Reform Experience Entrusted With SPD Leadership, Highest-Profile Appointed Role" not edgy enough a headline ?
Posted by ChefJoe on May 21, 2014 at 10:11 AM · Report this
Banna 8
At least we'll only have to pay her 70% of the going rate.
Posted by Banna http://www.ucp.org on May 21, 2014 at 10:38 AM · Report this
Rotten666 9
Can't ever fucking win with you people.
Posted by Rotten666 on May 21, 2014 at 10:53 AM · Report this
What explosive crime in Seattle?
Posted by leighzbohns on May 21, 2014 at 12:06 PM · Report this


I wish I were picked for COO of Facebook.

One of those "failing organizations".




Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://www.you-read-it-here-first.com on May 21, 2014 at 1:38 PM · Report this
Holden, I want to hear about your personal experience with being the victim of a violent crime recently and the subsequent investigation by the SPD. Are you working on a cover story?
Posted by mfs on May 21, 2014 at 3:03 PM · Report this
@8 You fully deserve to be unemployed with no benefits, broke, and camping out under a freeway overpass for making such a blatantly---and stupidly--sexist comment like that.
@12: I second that! Dominic?

Also---what's the latest on Tonya Mosley's story about the "Mo Snitch Code" / unsolved violent shootings in the Central District? The SPD's comment sounds like business-as-usual, and I hope that Kathleen O'Toole's appointment to Chief of Seattle Police by Mayor Ed Murray can go a long way towards reestablishing the community's trust in its law enforcement officers overall.
Posted by auntie grizelda on May 21, 2014 at 7:30 PM · Report this
AAAIIIGGHH!!! Correction, re @13: Also---what's the latest on Tonya Mosley's story about the "No Snitch Code" / unsolved violent shootings...."

My computer needs a proofreader!
Posted by auntie grizelda on May 21, 2014 at 7:33 PM · Report this
sparkydive 15
What the fuck is that she's wearing? Clothes she stole off a 1920's rickshaw driver?
Posted by sparkydive on May 21, 2014 at 9:00 PM · Report this
At the end of the day, a new face at the top wont change 40 years of corrupted culture.

Putting Obama in the whitehouse was a good way to slap ray-gunite republicans in the face, but we see 6 years down the line it hasnt done anything to change the problems.

Unless O Toole bucks the Union/SPOT/Rich O Niell AND she gets support from the DA (republican satterburg...aint gonna happen) and the City attorneys, nothing will change.

The SPD has to be cleaned out, not 'retrained' or 'reorganized'. 1/2 to 2/3rds of the department needs to be given pink slips. Nothing else will change that culture. I mentioned in another article, the Minneapolis Police Department went this very same route. They hired the first female (and openly gay) Police Cheif after and FBI investigation and countless court cases revealed their police department to be rife with corruption and racism.

Flashforward: Did she put an end to the problems? Nope. She joined the culture, and is doing what each chief did before her...defending the PD and resisting accountability amidst public outrage and outcry.

We know Murray was doing his best to undo the small steps toward change the Fed agreement had enacted within the SPD. Why would this new person be any different?
Posted by araucania on May 21, 2014 at 11:43 PM · Report this
Hawke 17
@15 sexist much?
Posted by Hawke http://facebook.com/thehawke on May 21, 2014 at 11:53 PM · Report this
Given the vitriol aimed at the police unions in the article above, I'd like to explain something that many readers may not know, and isn't explained by the writer of the article either.

"The larger of the two labor groups ... admits to spending most of its time defending cops named in misconduct investigations".

"The unions have ... filed blizzards of labor complaints that obstruct discipline and reform."

Those statements above, at least the edited versions above, are absolutely normal. Unions have a legal obligation to represent members who are disciplined. This is referred to as "duty of fair representation", and there's a fairly complete Wikipedia article where you can come up to speed on what this entails.

You know when you read about a labor union representing some guy you know, I mean, you KNOW, is a creep, say someone caught on the job watching child pornography, or who was caught red-handed sticking video cameras in the ladies restroom? Someone that threatened to beat the Mexican piss out of someone? And you think to yourself, disgustedly, "Effin' Unions. Why won't they just let the scumbag get fired?!"

Well, the answer is, they very literally can't. Labor unions have a legal duty to represent their members, whether their personal belief is that the member used excessive force, is a racist, or whatever the case may be.

Without this legal requirement, unions may not have defended any member they didn't particularly care for over the years; black, gay, female, disabled, immigrant, whatever.

I want people to understand that, any well-founded criticism of SPOG aside, you would not be a worker without labor unions, you would be a serf. I don't want labor unions as a whole to get tarred with the same brush.
Posted by NickS on May 22, 2014 at 3:03 PM · Report this
sparkydive 19
@17 You're right, that was sexist - a rickshaw driver would have NEVER worn pearls with that jacket.
Posted by sparkydive on May 22, 2014 at 6:21 PM · Report this
Wait you think Obama got elected due to people know the economy was bad?
Posted by dkjndmsahksdhksal on May 22, 2014 at 7:41 PM · Report this

That 'vitriol' is purely in response to the 'unthinking rage' the SPOG and the SPD members feel towards the citizens of seattle...especially the ones that arent white.

You choose to be a union cop that hates minorities and protesters (or supports cops that do). Minorities were born minorities. Dont play the victim here.
Posted by araucania on May 23, 2014 at 1:59 AM · Report this

Also its pretty funny you mention police unions defending black cops, considering the last SPOG mediation on the SPD's obvious record of only disciplining black and latino cops resulted in union officers shutting down and ignoring discrimination claims.

What was it....Office "mcteague [sic] mentioning that "the plaintiffs were *bringing race into the issue* derp derp...nevermind the DOJ investigation results or white officers *cough cough including brass cough cough* on record making racial slurs.
Posted by araucania on May 23, 2014 at 2:01 AM · Report this
A woman in my country would not be chief.
Posted by Babatundebad on May 23, 2014 at 3:21 PM · Report this
Can she succeed where the men before her failed?

I wonder how that sentence would go over if it were about the new Mayor of Detroit?

Can a White Mayor succeed where the Black Mayors before him failed?

Or what if another city had a string of female police chiefs?

Can he succeed where the women before him failed?

I guess it's only ok to trash White men. You know, the people that actually built this country.
Posted by jcgmich29 on May 24, 2014 at 10:40 PM · Report this
@24 your sense of history is a bit skewed. To say that white men actually built this country is to belittle all of the black men who toiled on backbreaking jobs when they could get them.... when whites were not unlawfully discriminating against them you idiot. Go ahead and launch your affirmative action argument I can smell it coming a mile away.

Be that as it may, I have lived in Boston and their police force never has been anything to write home about. And yes Boston is racist as it comes and I've lived in many parts of this Country.

As to Seattle, as I commented on another story:

Tonya I too worked in media for a large daily and small weekly and have experience as a law enforcement and criminal defense attorney. The indifferent and feckless approach to law enforcement in Seattle disturbs me and I have done several videos about crime in general and in the specific, against my neighbors, my girlfriend and me. So much so that we are moving away from First Hill.... even our postal carrier said the neighborhood has gone to crap.

But when I went to City Council on it last month they cut me off as soon as they could, and wouldn't even let me finish my sentence. Watch these videos when you can, peace.

-Christopher King, J.D.
Posted by KingCast on May 26, 2014 at 4:11 AM · Report this
I have an observation to make about policing that some may find relevant given my 12 year span in Boston, whence our New Chief hails.

City Council President Tim Burgess cut me off when I asked for just a second "for leave to briefly conclude."

I'll show him not to cut me off next time. I'm putting this one very public.



Christopher King, J.D.
Posted by KingCast on May 27, 2014 at 8:36 AM · Report this
TCLballardwallymont 27
At least she'll have a hard time making it worse.
Posted by TCLballardwallymont on May 27, 2014 at 1:56 PM · Report this

Experience Seattle/western washington racism THEN talk.
Posted by araucania on May 28, 2014 at 2:07 AM · Report this

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