Sue Rahr has been the Executive Director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission since 2012, and recently announced that she would be retiring at the end of the month. Before leading the Training Commission, she was a member of the King County, WA Sheriff’s Office for 33 years, serving as Sheriff from 2005 to 2012. Director Rahr was a member of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Director Rahr spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about her career, how she transformed training during her time at the Training Commission, and her plans for the future.

Chuck Wexler: How did you get into law enforcement?

Director Rahr: I have to confess that I went into police work for the money. I needed to make money for law school, and when I found out how much a new deputy made, I thought it was awesome. It wasn’t until I actually got into the profession that I unexpectedly fell in love with it. The profession turned out to be so much more than I understood looking from the outside.

Wexler: How was your experience as a sheriff? What were the best and worst parts of the job?

Director Rahr: Sometimes the best and worst parts were the same. When I had to actually run a political campaign to get elected, that was the worst part in some ways. It was so much work and so time-consuming. But the best thing about it was that it forced me to climb out of the cave where I was very comfortable. In my first 25 years with the sheriff’s office, I felt like I knew what I was doing. Things were familiar, and I knew how to do my job. When I had to run a political campaign, it was like starting a whole new career. I started to see the world of public safety in a different way.

Had I not gone through the trials and tribulations of a political campaign, I think I would still see the world as I did before.

Wexler: What insights did you get from running a political campaign?

Director Rahr: There were a couple things. First, I thought that murders, rapes, and robberies were the most important issues to the public. Those things were important to them if they were the victim or knew the victim. But outside of that, what most people really worried about was whether their kids got to school safely, and if their house was secure at night. Things that I thought were more mundane were very important to the public.

I also discovered how much the public loves the police, and how much the public wants to know the police. When I started my many decades in policing, cops were generally pretty open and friendly with people. Somehow over the course of a couple decades, this wall built up, as though we had to have this “Robocop” image and be less open to the public. When I was engaged in the political campaign, it brought me back to the reality about how much the community wants to know the police.

It also helped me understand how important transparency is. I made plenty of mistakes, and I found that the public is very forgiving of mistakes, but they have no tolerance for hypocrisy or hiding things. I think some of the problems we’re having today are the result of not putting the mistakes out there, apologizing, and sharing what we’re going to do to fix the mistakes.

Wexler: What was your impression of the training at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission when you arrived in 2012?

Director Rahr: My first reaction was surprise, because it was much more like boot camp in 2012 than it was when I went through in 1979. That surprised me. I knew there was some degree of military mindset, but I was a little surprised by how far that had gone.

The other thing that bothered me right away was the dynamic between the people who had power and people who did not have power. Our trainers should be role models, and many of them were not behaving like role models. I started asking a lot of questions. “Why are you doing this? Why do you make the recruits snap to attention when a staff member walks by?” The answers I received didn’t make sense to me.

I realized that we’re criticizing the incoming generation for not being able to talk to people, and, at the same time, we’re forcing them to stop talking when they encounter somebody in the hallway. That started a whole series of asking questions, then examining what information we actually need to get to our recruits.

So we started stripping away some of the symbols and traditions that I felt were counterproductive to what a police officer does in the field. We replaced snapping to attention with a requirement to make eye contact and initiate a conversation when you encounter somebody in the hallway.

The reaction to that was instantaneous. We train for about 300 different agencies across the state. When chiefs, sheriffs, and other agency leaders would come visit the campus, they would always comment on how friendly the recruits were. And it was just that simple change.

We also examined how we trained in defensive tactics. We have a 720-hour academy, and I noticed we were spending a lot of time with the entire class going on a class run. That builds camaraderie, which is important, but we also have a ton of information that we have to get through. So we shifted our control and defensive tactics training to be much more focused on learning specific skills, and we told the recruits that they have an obligation to stay physically fit, so they should do their running on their own time. When they were in our gym, they were going to engage in skill-building exercises.

It’s become clear to me over the course of my career that police officers who are very confident in their physical skills are less likely to become bullies and use excessive force. They have the competence to manage situations.

Wexler: What was the training staff’s reaction to these insights?

Director Rahr: It was mixed. Some of the staff were very relieved. They said, “Thank you. We really want to do this differently.” Some of the staff said, “You’re going to get cops killed.” So we had both extremes. I would say about 2/3 of the staff were supportive, and about 1/3 of the staff were less so.

The reaction was harsher when we got outside of the academy. The agencies for which we were training didn’t know what the changes were or why we were making them. We didn’t do a very good job of communicating our reasons.

When I worked in internal affairs earlier in my career, I learned that when somebody feels they are working for a greater good, they’re more likely to engage in honorable behavior. We made a strategic move to focus on the Constitution and being a patriot. And being a patriot doesn’t just mean waving the flag. It’s about understanding the Constitution and the role of policing in a democracy.

Talking about the philosophical underpinnings of policing is probably the most important change we made. We got people to think about what’s important to us as Americans. I think our freedom and our civil liberties are really important to us. So, as police officers, we should be striving to keep the community safe, and also respecting people’s liberty. Whether you have a right-wing or left-wing perspective, I think we can all agree on upholding the Constitution. And protecting people’s liberty and civil rights is something we can all agree on.

That helped me explain our changes. We weren’t trying to say that they’ve been doing it all wrong. We were trying to elevate this profession, and have people look at policing with the honor and nobility that brought most police officers into the profession.

Wexler: How did you respond to the criticism that these changes would get officers killed?

Director Rahr: I explained how we were increasing the time and effectiveness of our defensive tactics training. We were planning to improve their officer safety skills. We were also planning to improve their ability to gain voluntary compliance. If we’re able to gain voluntary compliance, officers will be injured less frequently than if everything becomes a fight.

Wexler: How were the changes received by the agencies where these officers would eventually serve?

Director Rahr: There was a lot of negative feedback driven by a lack of information. That’s on me. I did a poor job of communicating the reasons behind the changes we were making, and clarifying what the changes actually were.

A couple factors made this more difficult. I can’t ignore the fact that being a female leader had an impact. If I was a retired Marine with a crew cut and 33 years in law enforcement, people would interpret these changes differently. I can’t disregard the role that gender plays.

The other thing that was difficult was that very few leaders would actually offer criticism to my face. Like a lot of cops, there was a lot of chatting in the hallway, but very little up front. One sergeant from Eastern Washington, who was a really conservative guy and a union president, had the courage to write me a very pointed email saying, “I don’t like what you’re doing, and I think you’re going to get cops killed.” I thanked him for having the courage to state his beliefs, and we got together for coffee. We talked for two hours, and he ended up being one of my biggest advocates. The lesson I learned was that I needed to communicate a lot more.

I also found a better messenger than me. One of my trainers, who is a former Marine and looks like one, absolutely believes in the philosophy we’ve instilled at the academy, and is the face of what it means to be a guardian. People absolutely embrace it when he delivers the message. That makes me very happy, because the goal is to create understanding. If we can get people to understand the philosophy, we’ve accomplished that goal.

Wexler: How do you think about the “guardian” and “warrior” philosophies?

Director Rahr: It’s not “guardian vs. warrior.” You don’t have to choose one over the other. When we use the term “guardian,” we’re talking about a more complete police officer. The “warrior-philosopher” from Plato, if you will.  We try to convey to our recruits that they need to have the fierce skill and perseverance of a warrior, but that’s only one facet of their role in a democracy. Their role is to be the guardian who protects and cares about the well-being of the people they’re responsible for. So warrior and guardian are not mutually exclusive; you have to be both.

In our basic training, we talk quite a bit about the philosophical underpinnings of Plato’s ideal. If you are only trained as a warrior, that has very bad outcomes. If you are only trained as a philosopher, that also has bad outcomes. But when you combine the two of those into the role of a guardian, I believe you have what most of the people we serve want in their police officers.

Wexler: How did your thinking develop on this issue?

Director Rahr: I think I had many influences. One was my own experience of making mistakes and learning. When I was responsible for a very large agency, I saw examples of very good and very bad police work.

When I was involved with the Harvard Executive Sessions and did some work with the COPS Office, I had the opportunity to meet with people like Tom Tyler, who has worked extensively on procedural justice. Those experiences opened my mind to learn more. And the more I started to learn, the more I recognized how much I didn’t know. My younger son is a high school history teacher, and he led me through these deep conversations about how we got to where we are in policing. I was trying to explain the guardian role to him, and he told me I should read The Republic, to understand that policing requires a deep philosophical foundation if we’re going to serve the cause of policing in a free society.

So part of it was experience, part of it was my son’s guidance, and my curiosity being piqued. The more I read, the more I wanted to read. That led me to learning a lot more about the history of policing. And that is leading to the next chapter of my career, which is to really pursue what underlies the criminal justice system in this country and what role race plays in that.

My son and I are getting ready to write a book about the history of race in policing. I have no idea how we’re going to do that, but that’s my next moonshot. I want to share what I’ve learned with other cops. I’m not writing for an audience of academics or the New York Times Bestseller List. I want to write something for cops, to help them accelerate their knowledge and understanding. It took me 40 years to figure it out, and hopefully they can figure it out faster than I did.

Wexler: How do you assess the impact of your changes over the past nine years? Will the changes be sustainable after you leave?

Director Rahr: The sustainability depends on the agency the recruit returns to. For several years, we tried to do some longitudinal studies, but we just couldn’t get most people to return the surveys. We have some limited feedback from people.

What we do know is that recruits coming in the door score very high on things that measure the guardian mindset. They have the desire to protect, not the desire to conquer. They have a servant perspective. All those things that we want to see in a police officer are very strong in most recruits coming through the door. Then for five months we used to teach them about all the different ways people will try to kill them, and all the things they have to do to remain safe.

But since we changed our philosophical foundation, their guardian perspective is as strong when they leave after five months as it was when they came in the door. In a traditional police academy, you would expect that guardian perspective to drop precipitously after five months of officer safety training.

We’ve also found that, because of this philosophy, they’re much more open to crisis intervention training, de-escalation training, and anything else that equips them to deal with human behavior.

Wexler: How can this approach be expanded throughout the United States, where we have 18,000 law enforcement agencies?

Director Rahr: I wish we could find a way to get DOJ or some other entity to fund the creation of a model police training curriculum. I would love to bring together the best and brightest to create a model curriculum, then have the Department of Justice create incentives for the 650 police academies around the country to use that model curriculum and provide train-the-trainer courses. We could change the culture of policing if we did that.

That has to be accompanied by leadership training. One of things I’ve worked on in Washington State that I’m proud of is building a leadership training program that specifically focuses on intentionally building a culture. That means building a culture that is open to innovation and looking at things in a new way.

If we can simultaneously improve basic training and leadership training, I believe with every fiber of my being that we can significantly improve the effectiveness of our profession. We have great people coming in the door, and I’ve never been more hopeful about our profession than I am today. People always say, “Why would anybody want to be a cop these days?” But I see it the opposite way. This is the best time to come into policing, because we are at the beginning of the next evolution of policing.

It’s exciting to be there on the ground floor as we take what we’ve learned over the last 50-100 years and move forward.  Instead of feeling sorry for ourselves and being hunkered down, defensive, and licking our wounds, we should be standing up and saying, “We’ve got this. We have great ideas, and we have a better way to do this.”

Wexler: How do you stay so positive?

Director Rahr: I’ve never turned away from a challenge, but I’ve also been incredibly blessed. At the academy I have the strongest, most dedicated team I’ve worked with my entire career. These people are so deeply dedicated to the profession that they inspire me.

I also can’t resist a challenge, especially when the solution to making this better is so clear to me. Part of the reason I’m retiring is that I want to get off the hamster wheel of running a day-to-day operation, so I can really pursue these bigger ideas.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.