Axon Accelerate highlight: How Chief Kathleen O’Toole is working to improve police transparency, trust and accountability overseas
Axon Accelerate symposium speaker shares the best practices and innovations transforming policing in Ireland, and what agencies back home could learn from those lessons
While technology has brought the world closer together, it has not, and never will, replace the value of face-to-face communications. That’s why attending professional events is critical for the exchange of best practices and lessons learned, as well as candid discussions about the real-world challenges impacting policing today.
This year’s Axon Accelerate symposium offered just that by connecting public safety professionals from around the world. Through a combination of hands-on training, provocative panel discussions and exclusive networking opportunities, police chiefs, LE trainers, PIOs, line officers and prosecutors left the event equipped with the information they need about new technologies and evolving practices transforming the police profession on a near-daily basis. For a preview, listen to Axon’s pre-show podcasts with some of the presenters.
In May 2017, former Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole was named chair of the Commission of the Future of Policing in Ireland, an independent body tasked with reviewing the structure, culture and leadership of An Garda Síochána – Ireland’s National Police and Security Service – in the wake of several scandals.
O’Toole will discuss her experiences during her session titled “Transparency, Trust and Accountability: International Perspective – Ireland” at the Axon Accelerate Symposium, June 5-6 in Scottsdale, Arizona.
A model for democratic policing
For O’Toole, being nominated to serve on the commission was a little like déjà vu. Nearly 20 years previously she served on the Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland, also known as the Patten Commission, which was established in June 1998 with the goal of creating a new framework for policing as part of the historic Northern Ireland peace process. The Patten Commission’s report in September 1999 laid out a framework of 175 recommendations to transform law enforcement in Northern Ireland, with police accountability and transparency at the center of recommended reforms.
Fast forward to 2018 and a similar transformation is on the cards for police in the Republic of Ireland. “Issues which have arisen – many historic, some contemporary – mean the time is right for a fundamental examination of all aspects of policing in this state. This is an opportunity to stand back and examine how we are to be policed as we approach the centenary of the establishment of An Garda Síochána. At the same time the crucial work of day-to-day policing and oversight continues,” noted Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald.
O’Toole, who served as the chief inspector for An Garda Síochána from 2006-2012, believes the work of the Commission serves as a model for democratic policing. In the statement she gave during the first meeting of the Commission in May 2017, she told the Irish people: “To the community, this is YOUR commission. More importantly this is YOUR police service. A community’s trust, respect, engagement and support of its police are, without question, essential to modern, effective and ethical policing.”
The commission’s final report – which will offer the Irish government proposals for the future of policing in Ireland – is due out in September.
“The process first involved consulting with the public, as engagement and consultation are at the core of our work. We’ve accepted written submissions, online feedback, conducted public meetings in all corners of Ireland and met with officers out in the field in every region and division,” O’Toole told Police1. “For the most part, the Irish National Police Service has lots of community support. The situation in Ireland is pretty unique, as most people there know their local guard.”
The principles of democratic policing are the same wherever you go, says O’Toole, with communities – whether in Ireland or the United States – demanding that cops be more visible on the streets, that law enforcement address both crime prevention and quality of life issues, and that police departments be transparent and accountable.
“Here in the U.S., police departments are struggling to gain community trust and support. You need to engage with people face to face and be as transparent as possible when doing business,” said O’Toole.
Building community trust, regardless of which side of the Atlantic you are on, is a process that involves a lot of hard work.
“We were able to quantify this process in Seattle over a period of time. In the post-Ferguson era, a lot of departments were struggling and we had a series of demonstrations, but over the course of a few years, we saw double digit improvements in community trust,” said O’Toole. “We really worked to be a part of the community rather than apart from the community. If we had an officer-involved shooting, within 24 hours we tried to get out the 911 recordings and any available audio or video. This definitely worked to our advantage and I think the vast majority of community members and police officers really appreciated that.”
The Commission of the Future of Policing in Ireland received 317 written submissions from organizations and individuals including An Garda Síochána, policing bodies, political parties, human rights organizations, victims’ rights organizations, community organizations and policing fora, Joint Policing Committees, serving and retired Garda personnel, Garda representative associations, academics and political representatives.
Submissions were sought on key themes, with some covering more than one theme. The list below classifies the number of submissions referencing each theme:
- Governance, oversight and accountability: 27 submissions
- Leadership and structures: 48 submissions
- Role of policing: 163 submissions
- Technology and digital innovation: 34 submissions
- Recruitment, training and professional development: 82 submissions
“It is important to consider carefully the perspectives of police officers and the people they serve. Those living and working on the front lines in our communities have the best perspectives on the challenges they face and usually have valuable suggestions for addressing those challenges. Authentic engagement also builds trust and legitimacy,” said O’Toole.
Harnessing the transformative power of technology
One of the biggest challenges facing the police service in Ireland is the lack of technology infrastructure that we see driving modern policing practices around the globe.
“I attribute that mostly to the economic downturn in 2008 and 2009 where a freeze on spending brought all innovation plans to a halt. Funding is finally available again to address technology deficiencies,” said O’Toole. “We need to look at all the technology in policing right now and see how that could apply in the Irish environment. There is very little mobility; some places in the country don’t even have broadband and some stations don’t even have computer terminals.”
Utilizing technology to help improve the delivery of service to the community has been a key component of O’Toole’s police leadership strategy throughout her career. In the early 1990s, she worked for a short period in the private sector where she was immersed in a world being transformed by technology.
“I was fascinated by this and it made me realize the value of technology. I have always said technology is a tool not a driver,” said O’Toole. “You don’t go out and buy the latest and greatest tech for the heck of it; you get your business practices sorted out and then determine how tech can help your business. I came back into policing with a greater appreciation for how we could use technology to provide improved efficiency and effectiveness in the public safety business.”
O’Toole set out to use technology in the mid-1990s when serving as Secretary of Public Safety in Massachusetts to harness resources across 20 public safety agencies. She helped create a hub for criminal justice information with the goal of an integrated voice/data technology system for all of the state and local public safety agencies in the Commonwealth.
“When reflecting on what we did during that time, I realize there are some states that still haven’t even contemplated that yet,” said O’Toole. “Everywhere I go people are saying they want their cops more visible and for police to spend more time in the field, but in order to do that we are going to have to put mobile devices into officers’ hands and leverage as many technologies as we can.”
While she acknowledges that communities are also worried about privacy and other civil liberty issues around tech like machine learning and artificial intelligence, she says that police leaders must figure out ways to strike a balance between public safety and privacy concerns in order to fully utilize the real-time information and data technology we can deliver to cops on patrol.
“I learned a long time ago that you need tech-savvy people sitting at the management table so they can develop solutions to enhance the way we do our business. I have also said it makes no sense to automate a bad business practice; you need to look at the business practices first and then come up with the technology solutions,” said O’Toole.
What this means in practical terms is identifying the policing strategies you want to deploy in your communities, and then using technology to help accomplish your goals.
“When I arrived in Seattle, I asked all the precinct commanders how we were doing on crime. Their answer: “Good, we think.” They weren’t tracking crime data or other data related to calls for service, so we immediately we put together a comp stat model we called SeaStat. Police also do a lot of work that goes beyond law enforcement, but we don’t always quantify it or inform our community as to what we are doing,” said O’Toole. “We need to do a better job of telling our story.
“For example, we started to track all of the encounters we had with people experiencing serious mental health issues, determining that in one year, the Seattle Police Department had nearly 10,000 very significant encounters with people in mental health crisis. We knew we needed to find a way to quantify this and work more effectively in this area, so we developed an app that we populated with a lot of data around individuals encountered on a regular basis. We included contact details for their mental health, service providers, doctors and family members. In addition, crisis intervention counselors and social workers helped us develop hints for the officers responding to these individuals on how best to de-escalate. Using technology, we were able to come up with more creative solutions to solve problems rather than just react to crises when they occur.”
While such solutions may be easily within the reach of large departments, many smaller agencies in the U.S. face technology infrastructure deficits similar to those in Ireland. O’Toole’s advice is for those smaller departments to look across the public safety spectrum and beyond to see if pooling resources is viable.
What’s on the horizon for law enforcement?
While the public pushes for increased police transparency and accountability, and the relentless advancement of technology continues to impact LE, one of the biggest transformations ahead for both the U.S. and other countries revolves around the ability of leaders to engage in a multi-disciplinary approach to law enforcement.
“People watch television and think policing is all about gunfights and car chases, but law enforcement is only one aspect of policing,” said O’Toole. “Police spend considerable time providing a service. Some of the biggest challenges we are currently facing are at the intersection of public health and public safety. We are responding to people with serious addiction issues, mental health issues and chronic homelessness; sometimes people fall into all of these categories. We need to work more closely with social services and health services to develop multi-disciplinary solutions to these issues.”
At the same time, the technology that is advancing the practice of policing is also aiding and abetting criminals, requires a collaborative approach to stop the onslaught of cybercrime.
“Crime and criminal networks have become more sophisticated. We will have to work across local, state, national and international lines to address cyber threats, as well as international and homegrown terrorism,” said O’Toole. “While the average person is more concerned about the quality of life in their neighborhood than they are about terrorist activity, we have to address all of these areas at a time when there is a lot of skepticism about policing and a lack of trust in certain communities. I can’t recall a time in my career when the challenges were so significant.”
The answer, O’Toole says, is to take a collaborative, all-hands-on-deck approach to address the complicated issues facing communities: “We figured out how to do predictive policing and crime mapping – focusing on prolific offenders and high-crime neighborhoods – now we really need to build capacity in the area of cybercrimes and harnessing the resources available in social services and public health.”
To hear more about the solutions to these challenges register now to attend Axon Accelerate. Kathy is scheduled to present “Transparency, Trust and Accountability: International Perspective – Ireland” on June 6. Other sessions focused on police transparency include “Transparency with Our Communities: The Implications around Body-Worn Camera Footage Releases,” “Transparency vs Privacy: When and How to Release Body-Worn Camera Footage” and “After the Crisis: Using Body Cameras to Establish Trust and Transparency with Your Community.” Click here to register.