The Woman Who Is Restoring Order to Law

Sue Rahr is trying to drastically change the way police approach their jobs

It’s just after 8 a.m. inside a drab second­-floor classroom two miles from the Seattle airport, and Rex Caldwell is trying to get two dozen cops to talk about their feelings. “This is not meant to be touchy-­feely,” he insists, a plea for them to let their guard down and open up. If they can share what keeps them awake at night, what they think about when they’re on patrol, it could help save their lives, he says, maybe even the lives of others. Emotional control, he tells them, can be just as important for a cop as physical dominance.

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Slowly, they buy in. Caldwell, a re­tired police chief and manager at the Washington State criminal-justice training commission, asks them to share the ­depleting emotions they feel on a daily basis. Rage, one says. Fear, offers another. The whole group commiserates over anxiety about being sued if something goes wrong in the line of duty. By the time Caldwell leads a mindfulness-­inspired breathing exercise called 16 Seconds to Clarity, it seems fitting. “This reminds us of why we’re doing the job,” says Elmer Brown, a Bothell, Wash., police sergeant taking the course.

Since 2012, when a former sheriff named Sue Rahr was put in charge of the state’s police academy, every new recruit and a number of current officers have undergone training designed to turn them into “guardians” of the community rather than “warriors” who see the beat as a battlefield. Rahr ditched the lobby display case stuffed with nightsticks and handcuffs and replaced it with a mural featuring the preamble and Article I of the Constitution. Gone too are the posters warning of threats facing officers, as well as the “Yes, sir!” culture borrowed from the military. Recruits once snapped to attention when they encountered a staff member. Now they are required to make eye contact and initiate conversation.

The changes are an attempt to drastically alter the way police approach their jobs. To Rahr, one of the most critical things a cop needs to know is how to de-­escalate a situation without using lethal force. She believes most situations can be defused if officers know how to communicate properly and stay calm.

“When I talk about the term guardian, I’m talking about a mind-set and a perspective and a philosophy,” Rahr says from her office in late September, a Seattle Seahawks coffee mug in hand. “When I’m talking about a warrior, I’m talking about a skill set and a toughness and a tenacity. Officers still have to have that, but that shouldn’t be their controlling philosophy about how they approach their jobs.”

The way cops do those jobs is of particular concern right now. For yet another year, a series of fatal shootings of black men at the hands of police has sparked outrage in cities across the nation. At least 751 people have been shot and killed by law enforcement in 2016, according to numbers compiled by the Washington Post. A quarter of the victims were African American, and a similar percentage were considered mentally ill. After these incidents and efforts by the Black Lives Matter movement to draw attention to what its supporters say are decades of racial discrimination by police, the public’s faith in law enforcement has dwindled. Just 56% of Americans say they have confidence in the police, according to Gallup, one of the lowest marks in more than two decades. Morale among law-­enforcement rank and file, meanwhile, has plummeted, a funereal national moment coming in July when a sniper killed five officers in Dallas.

All of this has pushed race and criminal justice, issues that until recently had been afterthoughts on the national stage, to the fore of the presidential race. And in a campaign pitting two vastly different candidates, the gulf between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is rarely as wide as it is when they talk about crime and policing. They draw two starkly different portraits: one America is overrun with violence and race riots; the other is plagued by distrust between black communities and biased officers. Trump has painted the country in Nixonian hues, pledging to bring back iron­fisted “law and order” and calling for greater use of the controversial policing practice called stop-and-frisk, which a federal judge found unconstitutional in New York City because it disproportionately targeted African Americans. Clinton, meanwhile, has sounded a more conciliatory note, backing Black Lives Matter activists, calling for greater accountability and proposing to spend $1 billion on programs addressing implicit bias within law enforcement. “We have to retrain our police officers,” she said in April.

What is clear is that one of the few ways to even start turning around an institution as large, important and change-averse as U.S. law enforcement is to begin at the beginning, in the academy. “We should take advantage of what we’re learning to make our training more effective,” Rahr says. “The irony of all this is the changes I’ve made really get us back to what policing was originally intended to be.”

Every few weeks, a new class of recruits begins training among the pines and firs of Burien. Rahr speaks to each group while handing out copies of the Constitution, often joking that she knows she looks more like a real estate agent than a sheriff. “If I saw someone who looked like me on the street,” she says, “I would not assume that she was a cop with three decades of experience.”

Rahr has bright blond hair and a sunny disposition and likes to say she’s always been “on the edge of ­inside”—part of the profession but always a bit of an outsider. She joined the King County sheriff’s office in 1979 at age 22 as one of a handful of female cops, initially signing up to save money for law school. But Rahr quickly found that she enjoyed the work, recalling an incident early in her career when she subdued a large drunk man who had punched her in the head by pulling his hair and kicking him in the groin. She says an officer who arrived on the scene found her with a smile on her face and blood dripping from her hands. “He said, ‘I knew in that moment you were never going to be a lawyer,’” Rahr says.

Rahr came of age as a cop at a time of rising urban crime rates, the crack epidemic and the federal government’s war on drugs. Police saw themselves as the front line in that fight, and their training emphasized an adversarial approach, says Seth Stoughton, a former Tallahassee, Fla., police officer and expert in police training at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Police and researchers say a warrior mentality was often reinforced after the 9/11 attacks, when local law enforcement was asked to guard the homeland like soldiers and was equipped with the military gear to do it. As a result, the nation’s police academies spend the largest percentage of their time on use-of-force training and the least on de-­escalation and conflict mediation. Roughly 168 hours are spent on uses of force, most of which focus on physical skills, compared with nine on conflict mediation, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

To some experts, there is a straight line between this disparity and high-­profile examples of fatal encounters like the shooting of Philando Castile near St. Paul, Minn., on July 6, which set off days of occasionally violent protests in the Twin Cities. Had officers been trained to rely more on de-­escalation, the thinking goes, there might never have been a need to fire a shot.
“There’s been this notion for decades that we’re in a war on crime,” says Charles Ramsey, who served as the top cop in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia before stepping down last year. “Us against them, good guys vs. bad guys. That approach occasionally has merits. But neighborhoods have become safer, yet the same aggressive tactics are being used.”
Rahr has long been a proponent of a different approach. After being elected sheriff of Seattle’s home county in 2005, she developed what she calls the LEED model—listen and explain with equity and dignity—based on the idea that people are more likely to cooperate with police if they believe they’re being treated fairly. At the police academy, she has taken it statewide. In addition to scrapping the military trappings, Rahr instituted crisis-­intervention training to help recruits identify and locate treatment for mentally ill suspects rather than throw them in jail. Breathing exercises and “emotional intelligence” courses designed to help officers handle their high-stress jobs became routine. And the mock scenarios that once ended with force are now designed so that recruits can resolve them through nonlethal means.

“The message is not everything ends in an arrest,” Rahr says. “Most people can be de-­escalated. Not all of them, but unless you give them the opportunity, you’re not going to know.”
At the same time, Rahr increased the hours of training in defensive tactics and firearms in the belief that the greater that officers’ confidence is in their skills, the less likely they are to use verbal intimidation. “Failure to comply does not necessarily indicate resistance,” Rahr says. “There is a very valid school of thought that says if somebody doesn’t comply, then you need to go to force immediately. And I just disagree with that.”

Plenty of cops differ with Rahr’s approach. “I really don’t like the fact that people around the nation think this is the end-all, be-all,” says Spokane County sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. “It’s a myth.” Knezovich says that 20% of his recruits fail field training after graduating from the state academy and that too many of them are hesitant to use force when needed because they’re worried about potential lawsuits.

Police unions have also been hesitant to fully embrace Rahr’s approach. “I think over­reliance on techniques that make the officer vulnerable to attack do put the officer in greater harm’s way,” says Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, which has endorsed Trump’s candidacy.

By Election Day, no matter who wins, 100 more recruits will have graduated from the academy in Burien, making their way through the auditorium’s red-­carpeted pews and onto a stage that was once a sanctuary for a mega­church. Instead of Scripture, the newly minted cops will be surrounded by quotes from Plato on the core character of a republic.

“It’s a little bit ironic that this used to be a church,” Rahr says. “It’s much easier to get the officers in the frame of mind of ‘I’m serving a higher purpose’ here.” It’s the kind of message law enforcement may need now more than ever. But there’s only so much Rahr and the academy can do before Washington’s newest police officers are out on patrol, trying to guard their communities––and themselves.

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