O'Toole to head police
1st female commissioner faces labor, convention challenges
By Rick Klein, Globe Staff, 2/9/2004
Kathleen M. O'Toole was named Boston's 37th police commissioner yesterday, the first woman to head the Boston Police Department and one who takes the reins at a critical time for city leaders.
O'Toole is taking over a department that is rife with labor unrest, with less than six months to go before the Democratic National Convention comes to Boston. She promised to boost morale in the department by hearing the concerns of union leaders and rank-and-file officers, and vowed to reinvigorate community policing programs by building stronger ties with neighborhood leaders.
"We need to make sure that this city is protected to the greatest extent possible, whether we're facing a terrorist threat or we're organizing a national convention in town," O'Toole said. "The relationships right now with the community are sound, but we need to continue to reinforce them. I've always found that the best answers come from those who live and work in the neighborhoods."
Mayor Thomas M. Menino said he tapped O'Toole because of her depth of experience from both inside and outside the Boston Police Department. She worked seven years in the department before leaving in 1986, and since then has served as chief of the Metropolitan Police and state secretary of public safety.
She also helped set up policing plans in Northern Ireland as part of the peace process there and worked in the private sector as a public safety and crisis-management consultant.
"Kathy brings a global perspective to the job as police commissioner," said Menino, who announced his decision at a City Hall news conference yesterday afternoon before leaving for a four-day vacation in Florida with his wife. "She offers the perspective of being able to make the Police Department even better."
O'Toole will take over for Acting Commissioner James M. Hussey within the next 10 days, after she negotiates a contract with the city and works with legal advisers to divest herself of a financial stake in her consulting firm, O'Toole Associates.
Hussey, who was strongly considered for the permanent job, has served as acting commissioner since November, when Paul F. Evans took a job as director of Britain's Police Standards Unit after nearly a decade as Boston's top cop.
Boston's police officers and supervisors are working without contracts, and negotiations have been stalled for months. Relations have been particularly strained between Menino and the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association, which led protests outside the mayor's State of the City address last month and is threatening to do the same outside the Democratic National Convention in July, unless the contract situation improves.
O'Toole said yesterday she hopes her appointment will allow negotiations to proceed with a "clean slate." She noted that she has been a proud member of all three Boston police unions at different times. In an interview with the Globe, she said she would serve as an intermediary between the Menino administration and union leaders to get negotiations back on track.
"I haven't forgotten where I came from," O'Toole said. "Obviously, the situation isn't good. But I'm an eternal optimist by nature. I'm going to do the best I can to extend the olive branch, start with a clean slate, and work effectively with the union leadership."
Thomas J. Nee, president of the patrolmen's association, said he hopes a new era of cooperation can be launched with O'Toole's appointment. Nee said the union has high expectations for O'Toole based on her record and background, and said her willingness to get more involved in union talks is refreshing.
"We've been waiting for a long time for a commissioner," Nee said. "Our hope is that the lines of communication are reopened with the commissioner, that the commissioner values our input, and that the commissioner is willing to meet us halfway on issues."
Captain James M. Claiborne was the favorite choice of the union leaders and several members of the City Council, and would have been the first member of a minority to lead the department. Claiborne and O'Toole were on a list, produced by a search committee, of five finalists that also included Hussey, police Superintendent Robert Dunford of Boston, and Lowell's police superintendent, Edward F. Davis.
City Councilor Charles C. Yancey said the mayor had a chance to send a strong message of racial inclusion by choosing Claiborne, who is black. A majority of Boston residents are racial or ethnic minorities, according to 2000 census data.
"The mayor missed an opportunity here," said Yancey, who represents parts of Mattapan and Dorchester. "Captain Claiborne, I think, would have made an excellent choice, and that's not to take away from Commissioner O'Toole."
Councilor at Large Maura A. Hennigan, a frequent critic of Menino, noted that the mayor made history in another way, by selecting the first woman to lead Boston police.
"Certainly, any young girl -- or not so young woman out there today -- can see this moment and be happy that she did make it on the merit of her credentials," Hennigan said. "It goes to show that women everywhere have a lot to be hopeful about."
Menino had nothing but praise for the other finalists, calling this "one of the toughest" appointments he's had to make in his 10 years as mayor, because there were so many qualified candidates. He said that O'Toole's breadth of experience, and her work in bringing together multiple police agencies for particular tasks, set her apart.
Hussey was once considered the favorite for the permanent commissioner's post. Evans himself took over the job only after serving first in an interim capacity. But Hussey's leadership was questioned after rioting following the New England Patriots' Super Bowl victory. Fans flipped over cars and lit fires around the city, and 21-year-old James Grabowski was killed when the driver of an SUV plowed through a mobbed Symphony Road. Some have questioned whether enough police were on the streets to deal with the crowds. Hussey did not appear at work the night of the rioting, although he was in telephone contact with his command staff.
Menino said yesterday that the riots had nothing to do with his choice of O'Toole. O'Toole said she would have to review investigative reports and the department's operations plan before judging whether police were adequately prepared for postgame developments, but she vowed a full investigation.
"I was stunned at that tragedy, not only because a young man lost his life, but because I know his dad," she said. "My heart goes out to the Grabowski family, and I assure them and I assure you that we'll investigate that incident to the greatest extent possible."
O'Toole said she would lean extensively on the three internal candidates who were finalists for the job for which she was named. She said she would immediately consult with Hussey, the interim commissioner, and Dunford, who is heading up security preparations for the Democratic National Convention. Speculation began swirling yesterday that she would name Claiborne her No. 2 in the department, but O'Toole said she would take several weeks before putting her own stamp on the command staff.
"Inevitably, I think we'll make some changes, but I want to make sure that we put the round pegs in the round holes, and put the right people in the right positions," O'Toole said.
At yesterday's news conference, O'Toole, of South Boston, said she was "overwhelmed with pride" by being chosen and noted to reporters that the City Hall rumor mill had her out of the running not so long ago. She said she found out that she got the job a few hours before the formal announcement.
She said she relishes the opportunity to come back to the Boston Police Department after more than 17 years away. She said there is "sentimental value" to her to take over the department where she started her career and where her husband and her father-in-law once worked.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said O'Toole, who described the Boston police commissioner's post as her "dream job."
Rick Klein can be reached at [email protected]
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