"Get on board or consider other options." That was the most unambiguous, encouraging thing that police chief Kathleen O'Toole said about reforming the Seattle police department last night at a Seattle University forum.
"I think the vast majority [of Seattle cops] have bought into reform," she said. "I keep saying to everybody, 'The train's left the station. Get on board or consider other options.' I think most people realize this is a new day."
But over 90 minutes of question-and-answer at the Pigott Auditorium, O'Toole didn't say much else that lived up to the national hype around her as a leader on police reform, in an event billed as one in a series of conversations with civic leaders. The discussion revealed serious and ongoing criticisms of the police on issues like homelessness and accountability.
In case you were wondering: Of the 123 officers who sued the Department of Justice in 2014 to block the reforms, 111 remain on the force, according to a February 2015 staff roster. That's about a little less than ten percent of the overall police force. The chief fired one officer who added her name to the lawsuit last year after a public outcry: Cynthia Whitlatch. Many of the rest of them are still out on patrol. One notorious officer, Robert Mahoney, wrote a police report accusing a Black Lives Matter protester of assault last year, resulting in a criminal charge against that person. The city settled the case later without a finding of guilt. One wonders whether they are truly on the train of reform. The lawsuit against the DOJ went nowhere, but none of the officers have publicly recanted the claims it made.
Journalist Joni Balter asked the chief to explain overall Seattle's crime trend—has crime gone up or down? The police chief talked about a decline in the most serious crimes, but didn't answer the question. Total incidents of crime have gone from 40,294 in 2013 to 44,373 in 2014 to 41,182 in 2015.
Some audience members were not happy with O'Toole's answers. See below. Others were excited. One student told the chief: "Zero [police-caused] deaths of people of color in Seattle: I know you can do it!"
"Thank you," O'Toole said.
Outside of the day she was nominated for the job in the spring of 2014, the SPD has not made O'Toole available for a sit-down, on-record interview with The Stranger, despite many requests. The chief has called into KIRO radio for lengthy chats on a show hosted by a right-wing troll—the one beloved by the Seattle Police Officers Guild—multiple times.
So I took the opportunity to ask O'Toole a face-to-face question last night: Does she believe that Washington's deadly force statute should be changed? The unusually restrictive statute makes it virtually impossible to prosecute, much less convict, police officers who kill. It requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that an officer acted "with malice."
Specifically, should the "malice" clause be removed from state law? Last week, the Washington State legislature killed a proposal to do exactly that, as I explain in this week's paper.
In doing so, lawmakers disregarded the testimony of Seattle's leading police reform advocates—the very group that asked the Department of Justice to intervene after the police killing of John T. Williams back in 2010. Those advocates started the reform process that O'Toole is now credited with leading.
O'Toole said she would "look at any bill that comes forward... I think federal civil rights violations can still be brought in any of the cases in this state as well... I understand that in Washington state there is a higher burden of proof for the prosecutors, but that doesn't preclude the federal government from bringing charges in cases. And again, I'm not trying to duck the question. I remember, I recall looking at the language in that particular bill that did not survive... but if any others come forward, I'll look at them again and then decide whether to take a position or not on it."
This is the law that allowed former SPD officer Ian Birk to avoid prosecution by King County for killing Williams, I pointed out.
"That was prior to my arrival," O'Toole said. "I don't know what happened—did the federal government consider charges in that instance?"
I admitted I did not know. It's surprising that the chief didn't, either, given that the incident sparked the federal consent decree process. As it happened, the feds did consider civil rights charges. They chose not to file them, saying the evidence was insufficient to prove that Birk acted "willfully" to violate the civil rights of the man he killed.
One woman who identified herself as an outreach worker to Seattle's homeless population got into a passionate, tense exchange with O'Toole over sweeps of encampments:
WOMAN: I gotta take a breath because I'm a little disheartened and baffled by some of the vocabulary I hear you use. I know PR is your forte, and that is what it is. I keep hearing words like transparency and outreach... I've been an outreach worker now with the homeless population for three years and that's just officially.
The police have recently been doing these clean-ups, they're calling them. Homeless people and advocates are calling them sweeps. And what's happening is, you find an encampment of human beings living in homes and you kick them out of their home. Which is tents usually, or some sort of structure they're built themselves. Usually for months or years. You take their belongings and throw them away. And then they are left without a place to stay. I know, I've heard the answers that you have outreach workers with you. Who give them lists of resources of known shelters that are full. So these people have this lists of shelters, but they're useless. And these outreach workers know this, and these outreach workers have given you this feedback, and still nothing.
I know you guys offer to hold belongings and return them if needed... all of that is up to the police officers doing these sweeps. A lot of these shelters don't accommodate people living with service animals, couples, people with physical disabilities or mental disabilities.
I guess I don't know where you guys get off doing this. You guys are leaving people without shelter. People without shelter die. It's as simple as that. I saw numbers recently at a city council meeting which were terrifying. Over 250 people have been swept from their locations since the state of emergency. 90 of them have accepted resources or been given shelter. Yet their belongings are taken away and thrown away and then they are left in this cold and freezing.
I just... I guess I... how can you sit there and say these vocabulary words when you know that's not actually the reality on the ground... You're not being a human advocate, you're not listening to people on the ground, working.
O'TOOLE: I appreciate the work you're doing, obviously. And you of all people would agree with me, probably, that it's very very complicated. Yes, you're right —
WOMAN: It's not complicated. You just don't take away somebody's home if they don't have somewhere else to go. You're penalizing them for not having access to housing. It makes no sense.
O'TOOLE: Again we're really trying to work with people... with multidisciplinary approaches. The police can't resolve this by themselves. And you're right, we need more shelter beds and more places for people. There's no question about that. The population is growing dramatically... I wish I had the answer. I wish I knew where all these shelter beds and housing options could come from.
WOMAN: That's not what I'm asking. I'm not asking you to create shelter beds because that's not the job of the police. But the police have a choice to keep these belongings and not take away people's homes, just because they're not living in a house or an apartment. It's outrageous. It's unacceptable.
O'TOOLE: Okay. Well, I respect your opinion. I really do.
With that, the woman walked out.
Listen to the whole event here.
This post has been updated since its original publication.