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The woman chosen to lead Boston's police

Kathleen O'Toole, who took over after Super Bowl riots, pushes ahead with toughness and a personal touch.

By Noel C. PaulStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 16, 2004



In a city where old-boy networks and pub politics still pervade public life, the appointment of Kathleen O'Toole to head Boston's Police Department might come to some observers as a shock.

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Boston has never had a female police commissioner, and as of a little more than a month ago, this most fraternal of organizations had never seemed in any hurry to change that.

But then the city was struck with tragedy, and with it, scandal in the police department.

After the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl Feb. 1, rioting swept over the city, leading to dozens of arrests and the death of one college student. When the city's interim police chief came under fire for not coming into work that night, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino quickly sought a replacement to stanch the fallout.

The department needed a leader with a light touch to shepherd it through the crisis, but it would be unfair to suggest that Commissioner O'Toole was chosen because she is a woman, say friends and colleagues. O'Toole, they say, is tough, competitive, and brainy, and can make everyone from the homeless to the well-heeled feel at ease. After 30 years in which women have risen through the ranks among America's finest, she is the sort of talent that will increasingly be taking the reins of the nation's police departments.

"Communities are looking for some change, and these women are usually quite open minded, creative, and willing to think outside the box," says Vicki Peltzer, president of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives in Seattle.

There are now a handful of major US police departments led by women. Among them: Detroit, Milwaukee, and San Francisco. These women were among the first to serve equally beside male colleagues.

Roles over the years

Women in law enforcement traditionally focused on specific tasks that at the time seemed more appropriate to their gender, such as juvenile and sex crimes. But as women gained a greater foothold in the workforce, and the feminist movement strengthened calls for equal employment, police forces across the country began partnering women with male colleagues in traditional policing rolls, like foot patrol.

"The women chiefs we see now result from the the big push we saw for equality in the mid-1970s," says Ms. Peltzer, who is also chief of the Police Department at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Growing up in Marblehead, Mass., a tiny maritime town north of Boston, O'Toole gave little indication through her college years that she would someday go into police work. It was during a summer when she was looking for part-time work, and a friend persuaded her to take the police exam, that she first had an inkling to carry a badge. "My mother nearly fell off her chair when I told her what I was going to do," says O'Toole. She spent some of her first years working on the city's subway as a decoy for would-be purse snatchers. It was a duty, according to her sister, Mary, that she found exhilarating.

"She made some sort of record number of arrests," says Mary. "She loved being on the streets and doing the gritty work."

O'Toole's skill at the basics of policing - hard work, attention to detail, and good communications skills - helped her gain the attention of superiors and rise through the department's ranks. It also makes her well-suited to lead the department's community-policing initiative, which emphasizes close contact among police officers, local leaders, and residents in preventing neighborhood crime.

"She has the common touch," says Jack Dunne, spokesman for Boston College, O'Toole's alma mater. "She has the ability to empathize with people on a human level, and that's a great gift for a police commissioner."

Community policing is being implemented across the country, and officers like O'Toole, many of them women, are now in high demand.

Time away from the force

But it was O'Toole's willingness to leave the BPD behind that ultimately made her an ideal candidate to return and lead it. After obtaining a law degree, O'Toole left the force in 1986 and later started her own security consulting firm. In the early '90s, she was appointed state secretary of public safety. She also helped construct a new policing plan in Northern Ireland.

It's a CV that reveals a rare sort of public-relations savvy for an incoming commissioner.

"She has a lot of important political and social instincts that have really brought her so far," says Judge James Lawton, chairman of the board of trustees at Boston's New England School of Law, where O'Toole earned her law degree.

According to her daughter, Meghan, her ambitious mother's primary form of entertainment is watching and reading news. "She doesn't relax that much," says Meghan. Though she does, on occasion, take in TV shows like "JAG" and "CSI" - "official kind of stuff," according to Meghan.

O'Toole doesn't miss her daughter's sporting events. During Meghan's high school years, she was in the rafters at basketball games cheering with the other parents. But she has less time for what one might think of as soft entertainment. She admits that she has taken her daughter to no more than two movies.

And while the new commissioner loves to cook, she and Meghan recently began a South Beach Diet.

But O'Toole's first few weeks on the job have, it seems, made a much greater impression on Boston officials than her biography. She has gone out of her way to speak with the families of those who have died from violence, and has visited officers injured on the job. Emphasizing transparency, she's also launched a formal review of the Police Department's conduct on Super Bowl night.

"It's not new for her that compassion is a priority," says Linda McCaul, a captain in the Police Department at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

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