It’s not news that police in many places have become a real danger to the people they are sworn to protect and serve. Police point to the danger and disrespect they face to justify increasing militarization of tactics and weapons, while citizens point to increasing militarization as causing their fear and disrespect. The result is a spiral of police and citizens dividing into increasingly hostile camps. Any potential solution would have to involve rebuilding shattered trust, and one way that can start is by rebuilding the goals, expectations, and methods of the police from the ground up. It’s a big order but at least one sheriff is scrapping the old training model in favor of creating “guardian police” who emphasize the basic protective and helpful functions in their community. Even more special is that this groundbreaking sheriff is a “she”, and even more special than that is that she’s making her changes beginning here in the Northwest…
Sue Rahr is the Director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC) in Burien, Washington, about 20 miles south of Seattle. It provides training for police, corrections, and other safety professionals, and every law enforcement officer in Washington eventually comes through their doors.
Sue’s amazing resume begins in Wyoming, where she was the daughter of a Boeing engineer and stay-at-home Mom. Her goal was to be a lawyer but she couldn’t afford law school. Sue decided to become a cop until she could put away money for her education, but she found an unexpected opportunity on the front lines- “You’re given an amazing amount of latitude,” she said. “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.” The idea of being a lawyer never returned.
Sue gained broad experience in Seattle policing including undercover narcotics, burglary and larceny, criminal warrants, special assault, internal investigations, gangs, and special investigations before she became Chief of the King County Sheriff’s Office Field Operations in 2000. This was a position she was happy with until her boss, Dave Reichert, left his Sheriff’s position in 2004 for Congress and recommended Sue as his replacement. Sue was appointed King County’s first female sheriff in 2004, and appointment confirmed by vote in 2005.
The buck always stops on the desk of the person in charge, and a big buck landed on Sue’s desk in 2005 when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s “Conduct Unbecoming” series made a list of heavy allegations including sexual misconduct, prostitution, and even murder in the King County Sheriff Office. Rahr herself faced calls for greater outside oversight of her department and was accused of allowing a detective to retire with a bonus rather than face trial on criminal charges. She and the Department survived the fallout, and Sue was re-elected in 2009.
In a 2010 policing forum presented by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in Washington DC, sue met Yale professor and expert in police tactics Tom Tyler. Tyler had been researching community policing and police interactions and found something surprising… people in the community care more about how they’re treated by police than about the actual outcome of an encounter or investigation. Respect builds trust and disrespect ignites tempers, and this simple truth was to be a beacon for Sue as she continued to develop her views on policing. .
Another blast hit Washington State when the Director of the CJTC was forced to resign amid allegations of ethics violations. Sue saw a place to put her philosophies into action and took over the CJTC in 2012. She found a miniaturized boot camp where recruits were forced to snap to attention in the halls and were subject to random attacks by instructors. She set about changing things with new policies to set the tone of respect and cooperation she would try to instill in her charges. For example, she immediately stopped the snaps-to-attention and replaced them with simple greetings and conversation. Perhaps her most visible change was to the display case in the CJTC lobby. Where it previously held a display of billy clubs, tasers, and other tools of the police trade, Sue replaced it with an image of the Constitution and a large quote declaring that CJTC was “training the guardians of democracy”. A fundamental difference!
More detailed and more important were the larger programs she put in place like LEED (Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity) and Blue Courage (to avoid or delay burnout of officers). LEED was emblematic of the differences between Rahr’s approach and the way things were currently being done. When she asked questions of existing officers such as “Why did you use force so quickly?” or “Why didn’t you try another way of defusing the situation?” she said the deputies’ answers often reflected an approach called “Ask. Tell. Make.” “You would ask someone to do something. If they didn’t do it, you would tell them. If they didn’t do it, then you would physically make them do it,” Rahr says. “And that doesn’t reflect real life on the street. Most good police officers don’t jump that quickly from the first step to using force.”
About a third of the recruits left the new ‘softer’ school in favor of ‘harder’ training elsewhere, but most stayed. The image of soft training under Rahr didn’t stand up to examination, as recruits at the CJTC still train with pepper-spray blasts to their face, a firing range that shoots back, and plenty of fighting on the gym floor. They may be training to be less violent, but their safety and effectiveness are still top priority and reprimands are common for things like being too slow to pull gun when a knife has appeared. The excessive paranoia of “everybody’s got a bazooka” may be overboard, but Rahr and the CJTC know a healthy level of paranoia can keep a cop alive.
The bloody conflict between police and citizens has many causes. Racism is one, but it’s not the only one. Economics, political pressure, cultural and demographic changes also play a part, and any solution must address all of them. “Guardian Policing” is not a silver bullet. But as we search for an end to the blood of innocents in our streets, we’ll be looking for people like Sue Rahr to rebuild the trust necessary for any other solution to proceed.
Can Sue Rahr reinvent policing? By David Kroman on Crosscut, April 2015
The Empathetic Police Academy by by Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran in Starbuck’s Upstanders,
Sue Rahr’s vision for police reform is bold, compassionate, and achievable on Upworthy, September 2016
It’s Hard To Change Policing, Especially When Officials Refuse To Read Your Report by Amy Radil on KUOW.org, April 2016
Creating guardians, calming warriors by Kimberly Kindy in The Washington Post, December 2015
Former Chiefs Want To Change Police Culture, interview by Michel Martin on All Things Considered, May 2016
This May Be a New Model for Community Policing by Harry Bruinius in The Christian Science Monitor, May 2015
From Warriors to Guardians: Recommitting American Police Culture to Democratic Ideals by Sue Rahr and Stephen Rice, Harvard Kennedy School, April 2015