In Boston, new Seattle police chief Kathleen O’Toole saw violent crime increase

By Neal McNamara | May 20, 2014
Kathleen O'Toole, Ed Murray

Mayor Ed Murray chose former Boston police Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole to be the new Seattle police chief on Monday, with many agreeing that it was O’Toole’s credentials as a reformer and leader of a big-city department that got her the job.

O’Toole has aided in reforming departments in East Haven, Conn., where officers there harassed Latino residents, and the Irish national police force after a corruption scandal. O’Toole’s reform experience is important because Seattle is under court order by the Department of Justice to reform after a series of racially tinged confrontations between police and minorities.

But for all O’Toole’s cred as a reformer, a look at crime in Boston under O’Toole’s leadership is troubling and questions whether keeping Seattle safe will suffer for the sake of reform.

O’Toole took charge in Boston in February 2004. In that year, according to FBI crime statistics, the violent crime rate in Boston was 1,192.4 incidents per 100,000 people. In 2005, that number increased to 1,317.4, and in 2006 increased to 1,339.5.

In 2004, after more than a decade in decline, homicides in Boston suddenly increased. In 2003, there were 39 killings; in 2004, there were 61; in 2005, there were 73; and in 2006, there were 75.

From 2003 and 2006, homicides in Boston increased 90 percent.

In October 2004, Boston saw its first triple homicide in a decade, as three young men were shot to death in the Dorchester section of the city.

Under O’Toole’s leadership between 2004 and 2006, the number of forcible rapes remained steady at nearly 280, while robberies increased year over year (however, not as high as they were in 2003).

There was a big jump in the number of aggravated assaults, from 4,113 in 2003 to 4,159 in 2004; by 2006, there were 4,485 assaults recorded.

At the time, criminal justice experts blamed the increase in crime – there was an increase in other large cities, such as Los Angeles and Detroit – on a youth population explosion, the cutting of anti-youth violence programs, and a funding reduction for a Clinton-era federal program that funded police personnel.

A representative from Murray’s office did not respond to a KTTH inquiry about the crime increase in Boston during O’Toole’s leadership. It should be noted, property crime such as car theft, larceny, and burglary decreased under O’Toole.

There were also reports of mismanagement within Boston police during O’Toole’s time. A report on the department’s fingerprint unit showed widespread incompetence, with employees having little forensic training, leading to botched investigations. O’Toole only shut down the unit after the report became public, according to published reports.

In 2004, the Boston Phoenix newspaper wrote, “the BPD’s homicide unit has the worst track record of any big-city police department in the country.”

Host Ben Shapiro wondered whether, with all the focus on reform, O’Toole would also keep crime down. Shapiro mentioned his concern in connection with a recent report showing that Seattle officers were making fewer misdemeanor arrests.

And this week, former KING5 news reporter Tonya Mosley, writing in The Stranger, reported that after two gun killings in her Central District neighborhood, Seattle police failed to interview potential witnesses.

“There’s so much focus on reform, there seems to be a loss of focus on the ordinary police officer,” Shapiro said, while discussing O’Toole’s appointment with KIRO Radio reporter Brandi Kruse.

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