The media loves Kathleen O’Toole, Boston’s first female police commissioner, almost as much as they love her New York counterpart Ray Kelly.
But that’s not her only claim to fame. O’Toole’s extended family in Athlone and Roscommon includes Donna and Joe McCaul, the brother-sister singing duo whom some may remember (and most probably want to forget) as this year’s Irish Eurovision entrants.
“My cousin Patty is their uncle,” she laughed during a telephone conversation with the Echo, her Boston accent strong but refined.
O’Toole is closer to her Irish heritage than most, having spent many summers in Ireland throughout her youth.
“It was such a part of our lives growing up even though it was unusual when I was a youngster for people to travel back and forth,” she said.
O’Toole was always “incredibly close” to her grandmother, who emigrated to the U.S. as a young woman.
“We used to sit for hours just listening to her stories of Ireland,” she recalled.
“It’s really sad, the way she came over. It was actually her sister who was supposed to go and the night before her departure she got cold feet. My grandmother put on her clothes and took her ticket and left with less than 24 hours notice. She had such a terrible experience coming over that she never went back. It was a really tough trip in those days I guess.”
O’Toole and her husband Dan, a retired motorcycle officer from Massachusetts, are still frequent visitors to Ireland. They have a perfect excuse, given that their 22-year-old daughter Megan is studying film in Galway.
“I think my grandparents were so determined to preserve their culture that we were brought up with a strong appreciation of our roots and great pride in our Irish roots,” she said.
“The Irish who came over here at that time, many of them knew they’d never go home, so I think they really worked hard at preserving their heritage and culture. We benefited from that,” she said.
At 51, O’Toole has achieved her ultimate career goal (unlike her crooning cousins), but her initial decision to become a police officer came as a big surprise to everyone, including herself. Having pursued an undergraduate degree in law, O’Toole enrolled in Boston College to study law enforcement as the result of a dare.
“My grandfather was a cop, and I always had a lot of respect for the profession, but I never imagined I’d be a cop, let alone a police commissioner,” she said.
“I decided to do it for a couple of years, partly to look at the law from a different perspective. I didn’t intend staying in the profession beyond a few years, but I got hooked,” she said.
Starting as an undercover subway patrol officer, (“Basically my job was to get robbed every day”) O’Toole has been on the force for 26 years. During that time, she has risen through the ranks of the Boston Police Department and the Metropolitan Police, serving as state secretary of public safety from 1994 to 1998 and becoming Boston police commissioner in February 2004. During this time, she also set up her own law firm, O’Toole Associates. Last year, Massachusetts Lawyer’s Weekly, named her “Lawyer of the Year.” But O’Toole said that policing is where her heart lies.
“This is my dream job,” she said. “My dad was a school teacher and he just loved his job. He always instilled in me that job satisfaction was more important than money. Prior to taking this job, I was running my own law firm, making three times the amount I’m making now. But I could not pass up the opportunity. I must be addicted to adrenaline or something.”
O’Toole’s expertise in policing led to her appointment on the 1998 Patten Commission on policing for Northern Ireland, an experience she describes as: “the most fascinating and challenging project I’ve ever worked on.”
“When we started our work, there was all this exuberance about the peace process. Then the Omagh bombing happened,” she recalled.
“I had established a good working relationship with Rosemary Nelson and she was murdered only days after I’d been with her. It was an optimistic but turbulent time.”
Her work on the Patten Commission meant that O’Toole had to spend extended periods of time in Northern Ireland. Since her appointment as police commissioner, she admits that it is hard to find time for anything else.
“Its grueling,” she said. “It’s long hours, basically 24-7. I’m out there early every morning I’m home late every night and usually every weekend I have some event or activity to participate in. It’s probably not the healthiest job in the world, but it’s certainly worth it.”
The commissioner is equally zealous about spending time with her family as she is about work, and goes to extraordinary lengths to keep them close by.
“When I was working in Northern Ireland, I was back and forth every few weeks,” she said.
“In one year, I brought my daughter over with me on eight occasions. When she first went to college in Ireland, I spent a week to 10 days out of every month with her. My family knows they’re my number one priority but over the years, they’ve been able to participate in a lot of different events and I try to include them as much as possible.”
O’Toole has arguably been more visible as a commissioner than her predecessors, partly because of her hands-on approach to the job. Preparations between the crucial end-of-season Red Sox-Yankees games provided a perfect example.
“Tonight, I’ll be heading out to each sector where the police are working to thank them for their work and to give them moral support,” she said, speaking last Friday.
“I do the same thing with communities; I’m out at community meetings every day of the week so I feel like that’s my strong suit.”
Her desire to be visible on this occasion is understandable, given the security disaster that followed last year’s Red Sox victory over the Yankees, leading to the death of 21-year old college student Victoria Snelgrove after a police projectile hit her in the eye during post-game celebrations.
The Boston Police Department ultimately accepted responsibility for the death and O’Toole came under fire for failures in the policing strategy.
“It was certainly a low point, in fact, the lowest point in my career,” she admitted.
“When you have to face these parents who’ve lost a child that was the same age as my daughter, it was incredibly emotional.”
“I will never get defensive, this police department will admit to its mistakes,” she continued.
“But you know, we all have to share the responsibility here. Whether it’s with the community at large or the college students. We will do everything humanly possible to learn from our mistakes, but anytime we have 80,000 people, if some of them are drunk or violent, there’s a risk of disaster.”
Her prolific relationship with the media has undoubtedly helped to raise the Commissioner’s profile, but O’Toole said that being so well recognized sometimes makes her uncomfortable.
“I don’t want to be a celebrity,” she said. “I still blush when people come up to me in the street. I was in the post office today, standing in line with around 10 people, and this guy comes in and starts going: ‘Oh my God, it’s the police commissioner.’ It’s embarrassing.”
It’s the kind of attention her poor cousins would probably kill for.