Interim Seattle Police Chief's Approach: Move In, Clean Up, Move On

July 8, 2024
Sue Rahr steps into a department whose upper ranks are at war with one another at the same time as its lower ranks head for the door.

SEATTLE -- Sue Rahr didn't want the job at first. The headlines about the Seattle Police Department have been unkind, and she's been "happily retired" with a healthy pension since 2021. When Seattle's Deputy Mayor Tim Burgess called her in the grocery store, practically begging her to take over as chief, she said her response was, "Are you nuts?"

And yet, there was a certain pull she couldn't shake. She was King County sheriff once, followed by a stint directing the state's training academy, and in the years since as a consultant, she's learned more about what it means to lead a large department, she said. She wanted to test that knowledge.

Rahr steps into a department whose upper ranks are at war with one another at the same time as its lower ranks head for the door. Seattle residents report feeling unsafe and frustrated with response times, while also processing a drumbeat of stories about staff misconduct: the union's vice president joking about a young woman fatally struck by a police SUV; assistant chiefs under criminal investigation; gender discrimination allegations against the department's former leadership.

Meanwhile, the city remains locked in bargaining with its largest police union as a federal consent decree, now 12 years old, stubbornly remains.

Mayor Bruce Harrell said he wants Rahr to take it all on as if she's not leaving the job. "She's not a chief with an asterisk," he said in an interview.

To the extent her tenure does have a mission statement, it's to be a sort of paramedic who can stabilize the department well enough to pass it along to whomever will be responsible for its long-term well-being. That means quieting the infighting while also convincing would-be candidates that the rancor of 2020 is in the past. For Rahr, it's a unique position in the Seattle Police Department's recent history: a cleanup chief with an expiration date.

As she's expected to dissect the state's largest police force, it's also her job to find her replacement. It will be a more insular process than in the past — no firms or large search committees but instead Rahr and former Seattle Chief Kathleen O'Toole scouring their contacts.

Although Rahr won't commit to finding her replacement outside Seattle, she doubts anyone currently in the department is ready to take over.

"If we can overcome the reputation of the political volatility and the acrimony between policing and the community, if we can show that stability, I really believe this will be a sought-after position," she said.

Lead like you can't be fired

Rahr made two demands of Burgess: First, that she'd be paid like a permanent chief, even though her tenure would likely only last for six months; and second, that neither Burgess nor Harrell nor the City Council would dictate how she ran the place. She must be free to hire and fire.

"It's kind of hard to control somebody after they've been the boss," she said.

Rahr believes herself to be well-suited to the job, if for no other reason than she's unconcerned with losing it, she said. That's not to say she can't be fired, but with only six months on the job, it's unlikely.

That she's untethered from any career ambitions means a certain freedom to make people unhappy with her. She's already demanded immediate operational changes in certain neighborhoods without engaging in monthslong back and forth debates between her captains, lieutenants and assistant chiefs. On Aurora Avenue, for example, she's deployed extra emphasis patrols, opening up the overtime books to anyone who's interested.

She also reinstated an assistant chief, Tyrone Davis, whom former Chief Adrian Diaz had placed on leave. Davis is reportedly under criminal investigation, according to KING 5, as well as under investigation by the city's Office of Police Accountability.

But if her value comes, in part, from her freedom from fear, that raises a question: Can any permanent chief realistically walk the line between the public, City Hall and the police unions?

When Joel Merkel of the Community Police Commission, the city's civilian oversight body with limited binding authority, looks at the department, "it feels like it's been in a place of transition but just hasn't really kicked into gear," he said. "It feels like it's been that way for a while."

His view is colored by a scroll of incomplete tasks. Union negotiations, particularly over police accountability, march toward a possible clash with a federal judge. The federal consent decree still has not been lifted. A bevy of lawsuits from inside the department remain outstanding. The mayor's recruitment campaign was slow to get off the ground and has so far paid only minor dividends.

Coloring everything is Merkel's view of cultural issues in the department discordant from what the people of Seattle want. Beyond the allegations of sexism and racism is the perception that union leadership, in particular, does not take accountability seriously, he said. Remedying that would go a long way toward closing the gap beyond the department and the communities it polices.

"This is the opportunity to get real serious on making some culture changes and finding a way to get more connected with the communities," he said.

"I think in general, there's been a very strong consensus that policing as we knew it needs to evolve and change and be consistent with what the community's values are," Merkel said.

Internal needs, external pressure

Rahr succeeded now-gubernatorial candidate Dave Reichert as King County's sheriff in 2006. She'd come up through the ranks, starting in patrol in the late 1970s and, in the eyes of some, she was seen as conservative in her willingness to crack down on officer misconduct.

But in the more than a decade since, her reputation has grown. While at the state's academy, she embraced and evangelized the mantra that police should be "guardians, not warriors" and that young officers should not see the world as something to fear and battle against.

At the same time, she was heavily involved in state politics, pushing for new rules around officer certification and liability that are now law.

"She is a system reformer," said retired Judge Anne Levinson, formerly Seattle's auditor of accountability systems. In the many years she's known Rahr, Levinson has observed she's willing to learn and change and expects that attitude to continue during her time at the department.

In the weeks since taking over as chief, Rahr acknowledges she's spent most of her time internally and less out in the community.

"We've got to get things straightened out inside the department before we can be our most effective on the outside," Rahr said. "It's a little bit like an airline flight: Put your own oxygen mask on first."

But the community is impatient. Bishop Reggie Witherspoon of Mount Calvary Christian Center in Seattle's Central District said the department must grapple with long-standing mistrust on the one hand and frustration with lack of responsiveness on the other.

"I have tried to convey to the Police Department, one of the problems is, particularly in African American communities, they don't spend time getting to know the community other than arresting," he said.

That frustration comes as public safety concerns grow. That came to a head with the recent fatal shooting at Garfield High School, but Witherspoon said it's endemic. He said he's seeing a willingness to jump to violence more quickly than any time in his decades in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, he's not convinced the department is taking it seriously enough.

"I don't seem to see a department that seems excited about what they do in their communities," he said.

An appealing job?

Unlike more recent search processes for a new chief, Harrell doesn't expect to hire a search firm. Instead, he'll lean on his and Rahr's network, as well as former Chief O'Toole's.

"When these processes go on for lengthy periods of time, it's a disadvantage to the community," O'Toole said from her home in Boston.

Harrell said he does not want to discourage internal applicants for the job, but the current is flowing heavily in the direction of hiring someone from the outside.

Rahr's preference is someone with leadership experience, ideally someone who's already been a chief somewhere else. So far, she's not found that expertise inside the Seattle Police Department. The "acrimony, inside and outside," has stagnated development of possible internal candidates. Maybe someone will rise to the top in the next round, after serving under a new chief for a number of years.

For now, though, the stakes are too high.

"This is not going to be a place for a new chief," she said.

Before Harrell ultimately hired the previous chief, Adrian Diaz, members of the search committee reported lackluster interest — the combination of the city's political environment and the perception that Diaz would likely win the job.

Now, despite everything, Levinson expects interest will be high. Things may not be great, but that scenario is appealing to the type of people who want to be the chief of a large city police department.

"These are challenging and difficult roles," she said, "but for individuals who are motivated by the opportunity to lead and make change on a broad scale, those are the times you want to apply."


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