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Mayor Thomas M. Menino (left) listened to Kathleen O'Toole during today's press conference. O'Toole announced she was stepping down as head of the Boston police force to take a job as chief inspector of Ireland's national police.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino (left) listened to Kathleen O'Toole during today's press conference. O'Toole announced she was stepping down as head of the Boston police force to take a job as chief inspector of Ireland's national police. (Dominic Chavez / Globe Staff) Dominic Chavez / Globe Staff

O'Toole stepping down as Boston police commissioner

By Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / May 9, 2006
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Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen M. O'Toole announced this afternoon that she will step down to accept the nomination as chief inspector of Ireland's national police force.

"I do this with incredibly mixed emotions," she said, recalling that she called the commissioner's post her dream job. "It's been an incredible, incredible 27 months."

O'Toole, who is 52, said she received a formal letter this morning offering her the job as inspector general of the 12,000-member Garda Siochana, and expects to go to Ireland around July 1. Her appointment is expected to be presented for approval to Irish Prime Minister Bernie Ahern at a cabinet meeting next week.

"It's a phenomenal opportunity I never expected," she said.

The announcement put to rest rampant speculation about her future amidst a crime wave that left seven people dead in as many days last week and nearly doubled the number of shootings in the city compared to the same period last year.

O'Toole's departure also handed a key decision to Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who said he was not worried about a change in police leadership on the eve of what police believe will be a bloody summer.

O'Toole met privately with Menino hours before the joint press conference to announce her decision. The mayor called her a "good ambassador to neighborhoods" and someone he could rely on during tough times.

"We've had a great relationship," the mayor said.

"It's a blow to me personally and professionally," he said. "I've had a lot of trust in Commissioner O'Toole, but she leaves behind a good command staff."

O'Toole, the first woman to hold the top police job in Boston, has served as commissioner since February 2004.

He said it is too soon to speculate on a possible successor.

O'Toole came to Irish attention when she served as a commissioner on an international panel that authored a mammoth reform program for the predominantly Protestant police force in Northern Ireland, a critical plank of the 1998 peace accord for the British territory.

She also has personal and family interests in Ireland. Her daughter Meghan is currently studying at the National University of Ireland in Galway.

"While there have been huge challenges, it's been a grueling job from time to time, I've never gone home at night and regretted my decision. It's been an incredible, incredible 27 months," she said.

O'Toole, a Pittsfield native, started her career in law enforcement with the Boston police in 1979. She left public service in 1998 to become head of Boston College's Alumni Association. That same year, she was named to the Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland, also known as the Patten Commission, as part of the peace process.

The Rev. Eugene Rivers, a community activist, called O'Toole's departure both "a loss and an opportunity."

Rivers praised O'Toole for her efforts to combat the city's rising murder rate, but said she was unable to overcome a number of demographic changes in Boston that may have contributed to the wave of violence over the past two years. He characterized O'Toole's saturation of certain neighborhoods with police patrols as "horses riding through the neighborhood," a strategy he called ineffective.

"It makes nice theater, but it's not serious policing," he said. "I think she needed more time to really think through some new strategies."

O'Toole acknowledged challenges during her two-year tenure, including the death of Victoria Snelgrove. The 21-year-old Emerson College student was fatally shot by police officers using pepper-spray pellet guns to subdue an unruly crowd of fans outside Fenway Park in October 2004.

Snelgrove's father, Rick Snelgrove, said O'Toole showed his family a great deal of compassion after his daughter was killed, and he does not blame O'Toole for his daughter's death.

"She was the first person to call when we had left the hospital and expressed her feelings. We got together with her at our house hours after Tori had died ... we talked and we spent some time with her, and she was just a wonderful lady," Rick Snelgrove said.

"She has a daughter, too, and she knew how we felt."

In May 2005, the city of Boston agreed to a $5 million wrongful death settlement with Snelgrove's family.

In accepting the Dublin offer, O'Toole will be taking a slight pay cut from her current $160,000 salary to the Irish position's advertised $146,000 -- and would be tasked with helping reform a police force with myriad, well-documented shortcomings.

The Garda Siochana (pronounced "GAR-duh Shu-CON-uh" and meaning "guardians of the peace" in Gaelic) has struggled for years to combat rising gun crime, semi-lawlessness on rural roads and a surging road-death rate in this rapidly expanding, prosperous country of 4 million.

The lightly armed force suffers from major bureaucratic shortcomings, including a central computer system that doesn't work or even exist in many stations. Officers are provided no secure internal communications and must rely on their own cell phones. More than 8,000 warrants for arrests are currently outstanding, while officers' attempts to prosecute suspected drunken drivers are thrown out of court on technicalities about 40 percent of the time.

An ongoing judicial probe into corruption in the police's northwest Donegal division has uncovered shocking dereliction of duty, including the framing of an innocent man for murder and fabricated finds of Irish Republican Army weapons dumps.

The two unofficial unions in Garda Siochana ranks are threatening to strike if the government presses ahead with a plan to recruit a part-time reserve force.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.