By Jim Smith
BOSTON – South Boston resident and Massachusetts Public Safety Secretary Kathleen O’Toole, in Ireland this week to meet with fellow members of the newly created commission to recommend reforms to Northern Ireland’s police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, has called “absurd” charges that she is biased in favor of the RUC.
In an interview with the Echo on Sunday, O’Toole said she is “very excited about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to contribute to the goal of peace and justice in Northern Ireland.”
Widely acclaimed as a top-notch law enforcement official, O’Toole began her career in 1979 with the Boston Police Department. In the ensuing years, she was promoted through the ranks of the Metropolitan and State Police. In 1994, while maintaining her rank as lieutenant colonel in the State Police, she was appointed by former Gov. William Weld to her current position as Public Safety Secretary. In addition, she has been a practicing attorney in Massachusetts since 1982.
O’Toole, who’s 44, travels with her family to her ancestral homeland of Roscommon about twice a year. She said that she began establishing links with the people of Northern Ireland in 1994 when she participated in a multinational women’s conference on public safety and social issues. In 1995 and 1997, she accepted invitations from Northern Ireland officials to conduct educational sessions in Belfast about “community policing” and domestic violence prevention.
O’Toole said that she believes strongly that a police force should reflect the community it serves and should operate with high visibility. “A primary focus of a community’s police department should be on solving the nuisance crimes and deterring street crime,” she said.
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That philosophy, some local law enforcement officials say, has been embraced by police departments throughout the state during O’Toole’s tenure and has resulted in a significant decrease in the state’s crime rate.
In her capacity as an educator and advisor to public officials in Northern Ireland, O’Toole has met with RUC officers. In addition, she has hosted two members of the RUC who completed internships in Boston through Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government program “Young Leaders for Tomorrow.”
It is that connection, along with the fact that the Irish government’s list of candidates for the commission was largely ignored, which has made O’Toole’s appointment somewhat controversial here and abroad.
O’Toole scoffs at the notion that she may have a pro-RUC bias based upon her career in law enforcement and her contacts with Northern Ireland public officials. “I have a long-standing reputation for calling them as I see them,” she said. “Any suggestion that I’m biased toward the RUC is absurd.”
O’Toole did meet in her office last fall with two community activists who hold a dim view of RUC policing tactics. Breandan MacCionnaith, a Portadown city councilor, and Scott Daugherty of Peace Watch Ireland showed O’Toole a videotape of what they described as RUC brutality against Catholics on the Lower Ormeau Road.
O’Toole, a Catholic, told the Echo that she has always had “an open door policy” and intends to listen carefully to the concerns of the people. Because she had not yet had her first meeting with Chris Patten, head of the commission, and other members, O’Toole was uncertain about how the information-gathering will proceed.
“I’m very optimistic that some positive changes will evolve from this process,” she said. “I wouldn’t have accepted the position if I didn’t think we could make an important contribution.”
Later this year, O’Toole will leave her cabinet post to assume the position of executive director of the Boston College Alumni Association.