Seattle police chief signals major changes in top ranks

Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole announced Monday she will open the department’s five assistant-chief positions to competition beginning in January, including the controversial step of taking applications from outside candidates.

Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole announced Monday she will open the department’s five assistant-chief positions to competition beginning in January, a sweeping move that signals major changes in the top ranks and faces stiff opposition from those who object to outsiders being considered.

Applications will be open to anyone in the department who holds the rank of lieutenant or above, including the present assistant chiefs.

But O’Toole also plans to advertise the assistant-chief positions nationally to attract what she described in a department news posting as a “robust pool of external candidates.”

Mayor Ed Murray and City Council leaders have strongly supported that option, but the upset union representing police captains and lieutenants has previously moved to block it.

O’Toole’s announcement does not affect Deputy Chief Carmen Best, who was appointed by O’Toole after she was named police chief in June.

The move fulfills O’Toole’s commitment to organize a leadership team after up to six months on the job.

Although she didn’t elaborate on the announcement, the move also suggests that O’Toole is not satisfied with her entire team.

Since becoming chief, O’Toole has had the opportunity to evaluate the five present assistant chiefs and provide them an opportunity to show what they are capable of doing.

She also initially concentrated on filling top civilian positions needed to fulfill her pledge to bring best business practices to the department. Among them was the newly created position of chief operating officer.

The current assistant chiefs are Nick Metz, patrol operations; Robin Clark, criminal investigations; Paul McDonagh, special operations; Tag Gleason, compliance and professional standards; and Mike Washburn, field support such as the 911 call center.

If not offered a position, a current assistant chief could be demoted to his or her last civil-service rank of captain or choose to retire.

“I’m very open-minded at this point,” O’Toole said of the selection process.

O’Toole said she will reach out to organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police to advertise for the positions, and has mentioned potential openings to people at law-enforcement conferences and meetings.

Opening assistant-chief positions to outsiders earlier triggered an unfair-labor-practice complaint from the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), which maintains that it harms career advancement among its members.

“We’re going to arbitration on this,” Capt. Eric Sano, president of SPMA, said Monday in reaction to O’Toole’s announcement.

The labor complaint was filed in May in response to a new city ordinance that gave the police chief the authority to hire outside law-enforcement officers as assistant or deputy chiefs.

The ordinance, enacted in January, repealed a 1978 restriction that limited the police chief to selecting senior commanders from the present pool of captains and lieutenants.

The legislation, signed by Murray, was pushed by council President Tim Burgess and Bruce Harrell, chair of the council’s public-safety panel. With Murray beginning his hunt for a new police chief at the time, the two council members said they wanted to attract top police-chief candidates to a department under a federal consent decree requiring reforms to address excessive force and biased policing.

Sano said Monday that SPMA maintains the matter was subject to negotiation before it was unilaterally approved by the council.

As written, the ordinance allows the chief to bring in an unlimited number of outsiders, allowing “mission creep” while undermining internal candidates with a historical knowledge of the city, its people and politics, Sano said.

The labor complaint was initially rejected by an official of the state Public Employment Relations Commission, but it was later reinstated and will be heard by a hearing examiner in February, said David Snyder, a Portland attorney representing SPMA.

Snyder called O’Toole’s announcement “outrageous” while a complaint seeking a return to the status quo and bargaining is pending.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story. Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com On Twitter @stevemiletich

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