Friday, July 11, 2014

Seattle has a new police chief with experience in "reform," if that means anything

The city of Seattle has recently acquired a new police chief, Kathleen O’Toole—formerly police commissioner of Boston—an is eminently qualified for the current requirements of the position, we are told by the Seattle Times. One reason this may be true is that she has some experience in overseeing reform. In 1998 she was a member of the Patten Commission in Northern Ireland, which following the Good Friday accords that ended decades of violence between the Irish Republican Army and Protestant paramilitary forces while legalizing the IRA’s political arm, sought to “reform” and “remake” the Royal Ulster Constabulary into more of a normal police force instead of militant street thugs (as during the infamous “Black Sunday” massacre). After she left as Boston commissioner after just two years, she returned to Ireland to serve as “chief inspector” of police practices. 

As Boston commissioner, O’Toole went against the grain of usual police behavior by publicly apologizing to prisoners who were wrongfully convicted by falsified fingerprint evidence by the department. She supported the reestablishment of civilian review board, saying that "You have to go where the truth leads you. We may take some hits by opening ourselves to scrutiny, but we keep our credibility, our integrity." While she received praise for conducting police business with more “transparency,” support within the rank and file was predictably a matter of debate—particularly given the unusual wave of crime before she left office.

But everyone has skeletons in their closet. Some say O’Toole responded inadequately to a spate of killings of young people during one summer-long stretch early in her tenure as Boston commissioner. In October, 2004 following the Boston Red Sox AL Championship victory over the New York Yankees, a college student named Victoria Snelgrove was struck in the eye by a “nonlethal” projectile from the gun of a Boston police officer, which penetrated her brain and caused her death the following day. The manufacturer of the projectile claimed that it had warned the police not to target people in the face or throat. The Boston Globe reported that 

Brett Schweinberg, an 18-year-old Emerson College freshman, said he was standing 20 feet from Snelgrove when, he said, she was shot on a Lansdowne Street sidewalk across the street from the Green Monster.

"I think [the officer] hit several people, but she got hit in the face," said Schweinberg, who said he, too, was struck by the pelletlike projectiles. "People started running away. She fell down. I moved in for a closer look. She was bleeding out of the nose."

He said the shooting started after someone in the Lansdowne Street crowd threw a bottle at police. It landed near a mounted officer and the crash startled the horse, he said. Another officer turned around, Schweinberg said. "He started shooting the crowd. He shot like a 6-foot area. I think he hit several people. But she got shot in the face. He opened fire in the area of the crowd where he felt the bottle came from."

Leif Anderson, 25, of East Boston, corroborated that account. From atop a nearby parking garage, he said he saw the same officer, from 20 feet away, fire at Snelgrove moments after the bottle crashed near the mounted officer.

"He turned around and immediately fired his gun leveled at head level," Anderson said. "He fired two rounds in extremely quick succession, and the girl immediately dropped. All her friends were around her. They were screaming. And people got very angry at that point."

Kathleen O'Toole said police used "great restraint" as the crowd began to assemble around Fenway Park, but the problems were most intense on Lansdowne Street.

"And 99 percent of those kids in Kenmore Square [Wednesday] night were innocent bystanders who just wanted to have a good time," the police commissioner said. "That 1 percent of thugs caused the problem that forced us to take the less-lethal measures, and obviously this horrible tragedy resulted."
"Once the fires and the vandalism started, once people began scaling the wall at Fenway Park, that's when we decided we had to carefully defuse the crowd," O'Toole said.

Jim Sullivan, a 26-year-old graduate student from Boston University, said officers began firing at the people on the supports.

"I understand the police felt threatened, but it struck me that they responded with too much force than the situation merited," said Sullivan. "There wasn't anything down there that was going to get destroyed. They acted completely inappropriately."

O’Toole estimation of the situation seemed predictably inaccurate and self-serving, but she was nothing if not protective of her image. Sensing the way the winds of public opinion were blowing, she demoted a supervisor or two, and suspended a few officers, and even personally visited Snelgrove’s parents to offer her heartfelt. Despite the fact that the city was forced to settle for $5 million with the family, and the manufacturer of the “nonlethal” projectiles that were not “properly tested” by the police for $10 million, O’Toole came out not only virtually unscathed by the incident, but an (alleged) increase in public esteem—this in spite of the fact that she (at least) initially supported police actions against a few “thugs” that led to the death.

Another incident was her appointment of Sgt. Detective Joseph MacDonald to the department’s hate crimes unit. It was reported the MacDonald was involved in a “bust” of a gay men’s party in 1992, where his rough actions were deemed to be homophobic. O’Toole dismissed the charges as outdated, and anyways the officers involved were “within their rights” to arrest of the party’s organizer, since a neighbor—who found out about it after finding a flyer announcing it—had “complained.”

That is all past history; if it means anything for the future only time will tell.  O’Toole is said to have had a private meeting with SPD officers who brought forward the lawsuit against use-of-force reforms sought by the U.S. Justice Department. According to the Seattle Times, O’Toole “conveyed her concern that their suit had created the appearance that they were resisting reform, and that they were making it more difficult to carry out changes and restore community trust.” Is anyone shocked by that? That hasn’t stopped the suit from moving forward, but at least it shows that the new chief understands what the community wants—and some naiveté about just how bad things are around here. This city has been through a disturbing revolving door of police chiefs in the last decade or so, and we will see if O’Toole will have any more success in controlling her charges.

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