O’Toole in Charge

Commissioner O'Toole addressing guests at the Saint Patrick's Day celebrations at the State House in March, 2004. (Photo: Sandie McDade-Allen).

By Lauren Byrne, Contributor
October / November 2004

Boston Police Commissioner Kathy O’Toole serves as top cop to the nation’s oldest police force and brings a global approach to the job.


It’s a week after the Democratic National Convention, and Boston’s 37th police commissioner is warily eyeing my tape recorder. Since taking up the job six months ago, the city’s first woman commissioner, Kathleen O’Toole, has had to deal with a police strike, the security nightmare of the first post-9/11 political convention, and a sharp rise in crime, yet what she seems most uncomfortable with at the moment is this reporter’s gaze and gadgets. “I’d rather have you talk more about the Boston Police Department and less about me,” she says.

Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole. (Photo: Elizabeth Clairwood).

I’d like to oblige. But there’s a problem. Kathleen, familiarly known as Kathy, O’Toole exudes affability. Welcome or not, she invites a kind of relaxed camaraderie even in the anonymous and unexpectedly sleek boardroom of Boston Police HQ where we’re sitting. Given the opportunity, who wouldn’t prefer to find out how this modest 49-year-old woman, who joined the police force on a dare 25 years ago, has made it to the top?

O’Toole describes herself as a “situational leader,” happy to let her people get on with it, but unafraid to make tough decisions when called for. Organizing security for the Democratic Convention was a case in point. The media made much of the Guantanamo-style pen allocated to demonstrators outside the convention’s Fleet Center location and blamed draconian security levels for turning the city into a ghost town.

“No way,” O’Toole says, quietly but firmly contradicting the prevailing views about security overkill. “We’d have been totally irresponsible if we didn’t put a plan of that nature in place. And I think that that plan could very well have been a deterrent. Not only to potential terror activity, but to public order. There were some great demonstrations all week long at other venues, but for some reason everyone kept focusing on this 2,900-square-foot area adjacent to the Fleet Center. The demonstrators were actually closer to the delegates than they’ve actually ever been in the history of these conventions, but we had a responsibility to maintain safety as well, and the site became symbolic of the security, when in reality we were trying desperately to accommodate the demonstrators. So I found that frustrating, because we tried so hard.”

O’Toole shakes hands with a Massachusetts State Police motorcycle officer at Boston Police Headquarters on Tuesday, July 27, 2004. O’Toole was thanking officers from various agencies for their efforts during the Democratic National Convention. (Photo: AP / Lisa Poole).

Kathy O’Toole was appointed Boston’s police commissioner in the wake of tragedy. On Super Bowl Sunday, the New England Patriots’ win sent jubilant fans rampaging through the city and led to the death of a 21-year-old man. It did nothing for the image of the Boston Police Department (nor his future job prospects) that then Acting Police Commissioner James Hussey had taken the evening off. An inquiry initiated by O’Toole has introduced changes to forestall a similar event, but being absent from her post when a major event is in progress is not O’Toole’s style. She may see her gender as an irrelevant quantity, but successful women are the last to proclaim just how much harder they work than their male counterparts.

At the same time, she’s secure enough not to feel she has to ape her male peers. “By nature, I understand that our role in policing often has to be tough enforcement,” she says, “but I think it’s very important to show compassion as well, whether you’re a man or a woman, and I haven’t hesitated to show compassion.”

Her boss, Boston’s Mayor Tom Menino, has no regrets about his choice. “I’m very proud of her,” he said in a telephone conversation. “She’s been able to reach out to Boston’s diverse neighborhoods and shown real leadership during difficult times.”

Kathy O’Toole hugs Boston Mayor Thomas Menino after he swore her in as Boston’d new police commissioner in February, 2004, as her husband Daniel looks on. (Photo: AP / Elise Amendola).

Coming on board last February, O’Toole had four months to get up to speed for the convention. Just weeks before it, Boston’s police force, angry over unmet pay demands, threatened to picket the event. That crisis was resolved in the nick of time, and the city’s police won kudos for their non-confrontational style and helpful demeanor. Working 18-20 hour days, O’Toole was everywhere. “I made sure I got out there to every single area where our men were posted. It’s really important to show your concern for the people who are working for you, and they genuinely appreciate it. I’m not the type of leader who would sit at my desk at HQ; I’m just not inclined to do that.”

In her wildest dreams young Kathy Horton never imagined she’d one day be a police officer, let alone the police commissioner. The force wasn’t an option for young girls when Kathy was a high schooler in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where she lived with her parents, brother and sister after a move from the Berkshires. While a student at Boston College, she took the police exams as a practice run for law school exams and to lend moral support to a friend. Enrolled at the New England School of Law, she learned she had earned a place in the police force. On a dare she took the job, intending to stay a couple of years and see the law from a different perspective. She did complete her law degree, but only to gain a different perspective on policing.

“Those were my favorite days,” she says of being on the beat in downtown Boston, confessing it was the adrenaline charge that hooked her. “In fact there are days when I’d love to just go out there and do that again. One minute we’d respond to a domestic violence situation; the next minute it would be a bank robbery, or helping to deliver a baby. That excitement and the ability to really make a difference in people’s lives is just so personally rewarding.”

Job satisfaction is paramount to O’Toole, which is proved by the fact that she took a two-thirds pay cut and divested herself of any financial interest in her consulting firm, O’Toole Associates, when accepting the job of commissioner. It’s a trait she picked up from her schoolteacher father. “He absolutely loved what he did. Every single morning he went to work with a smile on his face. He always emphasized to us that it was far more important to love your work than have some huge financial rewards.”

O’Toole’s zeal for the job clearly neutralized any potential sexist responses to a female ascending the career ladder. She became chief of the Metropolitan Police, later a lieutenant colonel in the State Police, and in 1994, was appointed State Secretary of Public Safety.

In 1998, she was invited onto the commission headed by Chris Patten to study policing practices in Northern Ireland. Like others, Patten was impressed by O’Toole’s approachability and devotion to duty. In 1999, the Patten Commission published its recommendations for reform. Not all of the reforms have been implemented, but O’Toole is pleased with how things are progressing.

“I’ve been to Belfast a few times this past year and seen police officers on ordinary walking beats, and it’s so reassuring to see that, rather than the armored Land Rovers and the police with fully automated weapons. I think sometimes people lose sight of the progress they’ve made because they’re immersed in it.”

Left to right: Commissioner O’Toole , Massachusetts House of Representatives Speaker Thomas Finneran, Mary Hanafin, TD, and the Irish Consul in Boston Isolde Moylan at the Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations.
(Photo: Sandie McDade-Allen).

O’Toole’s time in Belfast deepened her interest in her Irish roots, reviving connections with her mother’s Gallagher relations and her husband’s O’Toole relations. Between them, she reckons, they have hundreds of cousins in the Athlone area. Meghan, her daughter, subsequently studied philosophy at Trinity College, providing O’Toole with another reason to continue spending time in Ireland. In Boston, too, the Patten Commission produced some unexpected encounters. Isolde Moylan, Boston’s Irish Consul, likes to remember how her friendship with O’Toole began:

“Being very much aware of Kathy’s very important role as a member of that commission, I was delighted that the very first phone call I received on my first day as Consul General in Boston was from Kathy. Although the call turned out to have been purely accidental – Kathy was calling the Consulate on some other matter and had inadvertently dialed my direct line – we ended up in a lengthy and warm conversation, the first of many! In the time I have known her, I have been impressed not only by Kathy’s keen intelligence but also her great warmth, her generosity of spirit, and, perhaps more than anything, her very clear call to service.”

In her signature dark pantsuit and crisply coifed hair, O’Toole summons up comparisons with Helen Mirren’s policewoman character in PBS’s Prime Suspect. But Mirren’s character has achieved success at the expense of her personal life. In O’Toole’s case, her personal life has complemented her work life. Married since 1982 to Dan O’Toole, a motorcycle officer and arson investigator until he retired, it was he who first encouraged her to enter the police force, accurately perceiving that she had the right disposition.

“No question that my husband and my daughter would say that they have always been the number one priority,” she says without hesitation. “I’m just very, very fortunate that they’ve been as supportive. And they’ve enjoyed it, too. It’s been a family experience.”

Daughter Meghan concurs. “It was definitely very cool having parents as police officers.” She admits, though, that the policing gene has passed her by. She prefers writing and has plans for a career in film. “Mum’s profession always provided great material.”

A recent rash of shootings in Boston playgrounds has put extra police patrols on the streets and produced community leaders demanding action. O’Toole is sanguine. “It will pass because we know to address it.” She believes the violence is the result of the recent reentry from prison of high numbers sent there in the 90s, and is enthusiastic about a pilot program that earmarks inmates prior to release and is equipping them with a mentor along with literacy and job training skills.

O’Toole’s PR commander has knocked on the door, putting an end to a pleasant conversation. O’Toole rises; after all, it is a working day. Later, in September, she’s got plans for a holiday – of sorts. “Last year I helped organize this Garda / USA golf challenge and we had reps from the Garda Siochána come over to play the Boston police. We raised $18,000 for Children’s Hospital. Now they’ve asked us to go there.” At the doorway she adds, “So hopefully we’ll go over and defend our title,” delicately conveying the information that she and her team won. Naturally. ♦

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