Can Sue Rahr reinvent policing?

By David Kroman
Crosscut archive image.

"I don’t work for a mayor or a county executive," says Sue Rahr. "I work for the community. They’re my bosses."

By David Kroman

On the polished hardwood table in Sue Rahr’s large corner office, next to her framed diploma, three certificates of promotion and portraits of her two sons, sits a plaque that reads, in pink writing: “Live life like your ass is on fire.”

Meeting Rahr, Director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC), is like meeting three people: the politician in the dress suit, hair done up, a permanent smile on her face; the proud street cop, sharing stories about fistfights and arrests and grisly crime scenes; and the mother, torn at times between her career and family.

When she took the helm of the police training academy in March 2012, Rahr inherited a military culture that valued power and discipline, the legacy of a stubborn, inward-looking tradition established by a controversial predecessor. With one foot in law enforcement and the other in the public eye, Rahr has set about creating a very different police training culture: one that is less physical and more verbal, less reactive and more critical, less military and more human.

She has introduced an approach to policing called LEED (Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity), expanded crisis intervention and de-escalation training and launched a class called Blue Courage, which cultivates “emotional intelligence.” Last December, she was named to President Obama’s task force to build trust between communities and police.

The “Rahr philosophy,” as it’s come to be known, is turning into gospel at the academy. She never set out to be a cop, but now Sue Rahr is changing the way cops are made. 

Every police officer in Washington State passes through the CJTC. Headquarters in Burien feels like a college campus, but with more concrete and fewer trees. A wooden sign near the entrance to the academy’s main building reminds recruits in raised letters that they are “Guardians of Democracy.”

Trainees spend four months at CJTC. Many of them stay in dorms, away from their families and friends, for the duration of their training. Only recruits who have already been hired by a police department can attend. They wear badges on their arms that identify their departments: Longview, Battle Ground, Yakima, Seattle.

Crosscut archive image.
Credit: Alex Garland

“To be honest, this is a terrible time to be a recruit,” says tactical officer Sabrina Kessler (at left). “Morale among officers is pretty low these days.” Kessler has worked with the Redmond Police Department for seven years. She is on loan to the academy for the next three or four years, guiding recruits through classes and scenario training.

Police departments across the nation have been under fire in the last year, both literally and figuratively. When Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last August, a long-simmering anger over police practices boiled over. Not since the L.A. riots of the early 1990s has the nation witnessed such a persistent public backlash against law enforcement.

Each time tempers began to cool, another seemingly senseless death at the hands of police officers hit the news: Eric Garner in Staten Island, 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Tony Robinson in Madison, Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Walter Scott in North Carolina, Freddie Gray in Baltimore. The outcry over these deaths has escalated beyond peaceful protests. Last January, two New York City Police officers were gunned down in their patrol car. More recently, two other deputies were shot while they were monitoring a demonstration near the Ferguson police headquarters.

Frustration with the Seattle Police Department hasn’t reached that level recently, but it has bubbled just beneath the surface for years. A tipping point came in 2010 when Seattle police officer Ian Birk shot and killed Native American woodcarver, John T. Williams. The incident prompted a Department of Justice investigation. The subsequent report concluded that the SPD had engaged in a pattern of excessive force that violated the Constitution and federal law. “Our investigation,” reads the DOJ’s report, “further raised serious concerns that some SPD policies and practices, particularly those related to pedestrian encounters, could result in discriminatory policing.”

Independent monitor Merrick J. Bobb, among many recommendations, has called for better de-escalation training.

Sue Rahr was born in Wyoming. Her family — mother, father and six brothers — moved to Bellevue when she was young. Her father was a Boeing engineer; her mother stayed at home. “It was a very traditional upbringing,” she says.

Rahr never dreamed of being a police officer. In fact, she says, “I didn’t like cops. They were ruining my fun.” Her attitude changed when she began working in a local movie theater at age 17 and got to know the two off-duty officers who were moonlighting as security guards. “I thought, gosh, these guys are pretty nice.”

Recruits at the academy talk about becoming a cop to serve, protect, to stand up for the good guys. For Rahr, becoming a police officer was the pragmatic means to a very different end: “I wanted to be a lawyer,” she says. “But I didn’t have enough money for law school.”

On a whim, she signed up for a class in police science at Washington State University. The subject matter interested her enough that she decided to be a cop for a while. Her first job in law enforcement was as a patrol officer with the King County Sheriffs Office. “I did not have altruistic motives,” she says about joining the force. “I didn’t go in thinking I was going to save the world. I went in thinking I’m going to make money, which is very unusual. Most cops don’t say that.”

Rahr’s plan was to work as a cop until she saved up enough money for law school. But the plan changed. Law enforcement became her career — not out of some sense of higher purpose, but because the work appealed to her inquisitive mind and fiercely independent spirit. “You’re given an amazing amount of latitude,” she says. “When you get to a scene you have to assess the situation and figure out what you’re going to do and I just found that fascinating. Every call presents a challenge and a puzzle.”

That way of looking at the job – that every call is a puzzle to solve – is the M.O. of the academy under Rahr.

“The recruits are excited to be here,” says Officer Kessler, sitting at a table in the academy’s cafeteria. As if to emphasize her point, recruits at a nearby table rehash a training drill, erupting into laughter at one recruit’s botched entrance onto a scene. Recruits will be at their safest right out of training, says Kessler, before complacency and burnout start to seep in. How long does that take? “About 5 years,” she says.

One way to prepare recruits for the variety of situations they may encounter on the job is to put them through scenario training. This role-playing, of sorts, takes place in a building at the academy that looks like a stockade, with long hallways of doors that open into square rooms with carpeted walls. Each room is furnished like the inside of someone’s home, but the furniture is made of foam. When recruits step inside these rooms they are confronted with simulations of real-life situations.

Crosscut archive image.
Learning how to quickly read a situation and decide whether police action is necessary - or not. Credit: Alex Garland

In one room, two recruits responding to a call burst in on a man and a woman (played by fellow recruits) yelling at each other. The woman is holding a small baseball bat above her head, apparently threatening her partner. The officer trainees pull their wooden guns, one more confidently than the other. They separate the squabbling pair and begin to search them, eventually concluding that this is a domestic violence case and that an arrest is warranted.

In fact, as they learn, the man and woman are just riled up over the Super Bowl, the baseball bat is made of plastic and no police action is necessary. In the review that follows, the sheepish recruits are told they should have asked more questions before jumping to the conclusion that they had entered a crime scene.

In many of these training scenarios, says Kessler, “there is nothing illegal going on.” Which is the case in the large number of real world police calls too. Recruits often assume going in, however, that trainers would only present them with situations that require some police action. That mindset can encourage taking action when none is necessary. Seattle officer Cynthia Whitlach arresting an elderly man for carrying a golf club comes to mind. (That man, William Wingate, just sued the City of Seattle and Whitlatch over the incident.) “We have this paranoia that everyone’s carrying bazookas,” says the academy's Deputy Joe Winters. That kind of fear can escalate, rather than defuse a situation.

While she was working as the King County patrol supervisor in White Center back in early 80s, Sue Rahr became pregnant. “At the time,” she says, “nobody had ever heard of a pregnant cop. I ended up working the streets until I was five months pregnant. I was scared of losing my job. But after I got into kind of a serious fight, I went to my commander and said this is kind of unethical. He gave me a desk job.”

After her first son was born, she wanted to be a full-time mother. But she and her husband, a teacher at the time, couldn’t get the math to add up. Rahr had to work, so she hired a nanny, about which she says with a hint of regret, “It worked fine.”

She continued as a patrol supervisor as her first and then second boy grew older. The hours for patrol officers were long, unpredictable and hard on a family. Supervisors, on the other hand, worked 9-5. With the same pragmatism she used to become a cop in the first place, Rahr decided to seek promotions, not for the prestige but for the predictability. “Honestly,” she says, “If I didn’t have kids, I’d still be a patrol supervisor. That’s where my heart is.”

For someone who was reluctant to ascend through the ranks, Rahr’s climb was swift and smooth, especially considering she was a woman in a male-dominated culture. By the year 2000, she was supervising 450 patrol officers as Chief of the King County Sheriff’s Office Field Operations.

The job, a sort of number two to the King County Sheriff, was important, but anonymous, which suited Rahr just fine. But when her boss, Sheriff Dave Reichert left to serve in the U.S. Congress in 2004, he recommended that she take his place. “I was not happy with that,” Rahr recalls, “because it meant things were going to shift.”

Rahr resisted for a time, preferring to stay out of the public eye. But she couldn’t shake a sense of responsibility, not to mention a desire to be her own boss. “I like to give directions,” she says. “I’m not very good at following directions.”

So she relented and, in mid-2004, the King County Council appointed her King County’s first female sheriff. In the fall of 2005, Rahr won the Sheriff post in the general election.

If becoming – and remaining – a cop is Part One of Sue Rahr’s story, then getting pushed into the sheriff’s position is Part Two. Up until then, she says, “I had the point of view of the person in the trenches. We have 911 calls, we need to solve crimes and catch bad guys. I was very much focused on the job in front of me.”

As Rahr learned more about being sheriff and began to campaign for a full term, she started emerging from that “cave.” Her perspective on police and their place in the community opened up. “That was the first time in my 25-year career that I had any understanding of the role of law enforcement in the big scheme of things — in the community and in our form of government,” she says. “I realized I work for the community. They’re my bosses. I don’t work for a mayor or a county executive. I’m taking orders from the citizens.”

That revelation quickly became a harsh reality, because what Rahr would also come to understand is that her citizen bosses demanded accountability. In 2005, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer began publishing its year long “Conduct Unbecoming” series, which exposed years of officer misconduct and a lax disciplinary system within the King County Sheriff’s Office. The accusations were harsh. The paper published allegations that one veteran sheriff’s deputy had engaged in sexual misconduct and that another had murdered a convenience-store clerk. The charges were eventually dropped.

Although still new to her position, Rahr was not spared. She was pilloried for allowing vice Detective Dan Ring to retire with a $10,000 bonus rather than face trial on several criminal charges, including using his police authority to protect an online prostitution ring. At the time, Rahr justified her decision by saying she just wanted Ring gone. She caught fire again when she chose to conduct an internal investigation of the department; her critics argued for greater outside oversight.

Rahr survived the ordeal, cruising to an unopposed re-election in 2009. She did not dispute the PI’s allegations, but, in a formal complaint to the Washington News Council, called the paper's attack unbalanced and biased. She defended the officers who, she argued, were doing good police work. But the crisis prompted some soul-searching — for Rahr and her department. As she began turning over stones, finding what she called ineffective and outdated policies, it became clear that things needed to change.

Where some may have gone down with the ship — or abandoned it completely — Rahr ran toward the problem, her you-know-what on fire. She ended up where few police officers have gone before: academia.

When asked about Darren Wilson or any of the other officers involved in the last year’s high-profile shootings, Officer Kessler doesn’t jump to their defense. Instead, she says, “there are always a couple officers out there that make it really hard for the rest of us."

Her response stands in stark contrast to the image of police departments circling the wagons whenever they come under siege. Think of Oregon officers proclaiming "I Am Darren Wilson"; or New York’s finest turning their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio; or the Seattle Police Management Association filing an unfair-labor-practice complaint against the city in early 2015 in an effort to stop Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole from hiring outsiders for departmental leadership positions.

Kessler is constantly reminding recruits not to lose sight of the community they are supposed to be serving. “I try to hit home with them that they can be human, “ she says. “Even on traffic stops, you can give a little piece of you as a person.” Not all police officers approach training in that way, but community focus is Kessler’s philosophy and, she says, “I got it from Director Rahr.”

In another training room at CJTC, a recruit presses a kitchen knife to his wrists. Two other recruits, wooden guns drawn, stand in front of him. This man, they’ve been told, hasn’t eaten in days and may be suicidal. The staged confrontation is part of the academy’s crisis intervention training, which has been expanded from eight to 40 hours under Rahr. Before the emphasis on “de-escalation techniques,” says Deputy Winters, “it was all about, ‘If you don’t do what I tell you, I’ll make you [do it].’ Now, we try to talk to people.”

Talking can be an effective tactic when confronting a person who is mentally ill. Yet for years, says Winters, officers shipped anyone suspected of mental illness off to jail where they’d sit until a mental health professional or caseworker showed up for an evaluation. “We didn’t bridge the gap between police and mental health professionals,” he says. “Cops were responding to third-degree shoplifting calls and making arrests.” And the responses to such relatively minor crimes, often committed by people who weren’t even aware they were breaking the law, could escalate. In Memphis, an elderly, mentally ill man was shot and killed in just this kind of situation.

Crisis intervention training, or CIT, is all about recognizing when someone is in crisis. Cops are trained to reason, but people in crisis are not reasonable. CIT teaches cops to slow down, speak softly and resist the urge to match the suspect’s agitated tone. Most importantly, it teaches cops to determine when to call a mental health professional to the scene. “We can eliminate the middleman,” says Winters – meaning jail.

In her search for better practices, Rahr traveled to Washington D.C. in 2010 to attend a policing forum hosted by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), a subsidiary of the Department of Justice. There, she met Tom Tyler, a Yale University professor who’s an expert in procedural justice, or police tactics.

Cities and police departments like to talk numbers — the mayor and SPD will tell you that crime in Seattle has gone down. In New York City, the drop in homicides is a feather in the cap of politicians and police commissioners alike. But Tyler’s studies reveal something more subtle and interesting: People in the community care more about how they’re treated by police than about the actual outcome of an encounter or investigation. Respect, or the lack of it, ignited tempers in Ferguson and, most recently, in Baltimore.

With anger erupting into riots and looting in Baltimore, civil rights advocates are implicating the tough-on-crime tactics of former Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (now considering a presidential run). Homicides dropped 16 percent during his 15-year tenure. However, as the number of O'Malley-era arrests spiked — to more than 100,000 — so did complaints, including from the NAACP and ACLU, about minority targeting. If tough police tactics widen the trust gap between law enforcement and citizens, especially young black men, is a statistical drop in crime rates really worth it?

“Most cops are not that good at listening,” says Rahr. “We’re really good at telling people what to do.”

During her time as Sheriff, Rahr served on the board of CJTC. “I wanted to be involved,” she says, “because, to be honest, I was not happy with the product I was getting. I wasn’t happy with the training that was being done here.”

Two years into her second term as Sheriff, she was also burning out on politics. Just as she was considering her next move, then CJTC director Joe Hawe was fined $12,500 and forced to resign over ethics violations. He had used academy funds to buy art from his sister’s company; let his son attend a grant writing workshop at the discounted rate reserved for academy staffers; and supplied academy facilities and administration staff for meetings of the nonprofit Safe Call Now, where he was a board-member.

With the CJTC director position open, Rahr saw the opportunity to “put my money where my mouth was.”

The academy she inherited in 2012 was a place that promoted militarism and power. With Hawe in charge, recruits had to snap to attention before their superiors, even in the hallways. Early in their training, recruits went through a “tune-up day,” where they were berated by superiors for failing to complete a series of physically impossible tasks. In one training scenario, recruits were attacked by an officer wearing protective gear and made to fight for their lives. “We had some people on power trips,” says Rahr. When she questioned the militaristic approach, she was told: this is how we’ve done it for years.

So Rahr began to make changes. She put a premium on conversation. Instead of snapping to attention, recruits were told to greet their superiors politely and talk to them. She introduced LEED (Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity), a distilled version of what she’d learned from Tom Tyler.

LEED makes so much sense, says Rahr, “that a lot of people say, ‘well, duh.’” In a nutshell, “when you show up on a scene, take five minutes and just listen,” she explains. “Allowing someone five minutes to just talk is very cathartic and works to de-escalate the situation.”

As officers work the scene and decide how to handle it – ticket, arrest or nothing – the LEED approach teaches them to explain exactly what they’re doing and why. “If people believe you listened, heard and are being fair, most are motivated to cooperate,” says Rahr. “If you take the exact same action without explaining, they’re less likely to cooperate.”

Empathy and patience don’t come naturally for some recruits. But over time, they learn. The two trainees who misdiagnosed the false-alarm domestic violence scenario get another try. Both are stocky, stern and mustachioed, partners straight out of police central casting. But this time around, their voices have gone up in pitch, and they speak to the suspects more gently.

Blue Courage is another of Rahr’s new programs. Modeled on a Tucson, Arizona program, Blue Courage works to avoid — or at least delay — the burnout and complacency that Officer Kessler described earlier.

Officer and CJTC trainer Mark Best talks to a room of some 60 recruits about “emotional stamina” and “recharging your battery.” All but two of them are men. They raise their hands and share personal stories about how they recharge or relieve stress. One goes for a run when he’s stressed. Another listens to music. A third hangs with his dog. Officer Best, who’s got a handlebar mustache, broad shoulders and a gravelly voice, reads them a Rumi poem. If it weren’t for all the uniforms and crew cuts, this could be an Intro to Poetry class in some liberal arts college.

Not everyone was happy with Rahr’s changes. A lot of the academy’s officers and captains — Rahr estimates about a third — stood by the old-guard, disciplinarian model and left. Some recruits felt Rahr’s methods were too soft and called them “lame.” But make no mistake: Sue Rahr’s police training is not sunshine and lollipops. In one simulation at the end of their training, recruits get a face full of pepper spray before being made to talk down a man who is in crisis. The academy’s firing range actually shoots little metal balls back at the recruits. And, on a daily basis, recruits can be seen fighting on a gym floor.

The fact is, cops have a very dangerous job. In the CIT training, one officer was reprimanded because he was slow to pull his gun at the sight of a knife. The paranoia Deputy Winters described — that “everyone’s got a bazooka” — is not discouraged because it can keep officers alive. Rahr may not circle the wagons like some of her colleagues in uniform, but the loyalty at the academy is palpable. Officers will clearly stand up for each other using whatever tools work best, be it words or guns. Rahr wants to make sure they are adept at wielding both.

“The joke we tell,” she says, “is that the second our recruits get picked up by their departments, their training officers tell them, ‘forget everything you just learned. Now I’m going to show you how to be a real cop.’ My hope is that we can get to a point where their training officer can say, ‘now let me show you how to apply what you’ve just learned.’”

Accusations of police brutality have not gone away. With May 1st just a few days away, the SPD is preparing for the worst. The day often begins with peaceful labor protests and ends with clashes between anarchists and police. May Day 2015 will likely end with some angry protests and at least a few broken windows, reminders of the lingering divide between cops and the community.

Will the kind of community policing that Rahr champions help the SPD reach across that divide? Rahr has great faith that Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole can make it happen. And that it must happen. “Law enforcement is the only position in our society that can legally take away life and liberty,” says Rahr. That power comes with grave responsibility and it must be handled with care.

Rahr doesn't hide from the realities and (in some cases dark) history of police work, nor does she mince words about what can happen when law enforcement runs amok. "Most police officers don't think about the role of the police in Nazi Germany,” she says. “They were complicit. Someone once pointed out to me that police were also complicit in the lynchings in the South in the 1900s. There is a deep seated fear and mistrust among some communities."

The police officers that Rahr is striving to produce don't adhere to some rote checklist. They are critical thinkers who can step back and see the big picture. They know when to act and when to stand down. They can improvise. They understand, says Rahr, that the police are not warriors. They are, like the mural on the CJTC’s main building says, “Guardians of Democracy.”

How do Sue Rahr's recruits transition from the Criminal Justice Training Commission academy to the streets? Does their training persist? In Part 2 of this series, Crosscut looks at the training CJTC graduates receive once they leave the academy and join the Seattle Police Department.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.