Sue Rahr graduated from Washington State University in 1979 with a degree in criminal justice. In January 2005 she was promoted from King County chief of field operations to sheriff. She is the first woman to be sheriff of King County. The following is excerpted from an interview with Washington State Magazine’s Hannelore Sudermann, February 22, 2005 at the King County Courthouse.
Take your opportunities.
I was engaged to be married right after I graduated from college. My husband and I set a wedding date, sent out invitations. Everything was ready to go, and I got a call early in July from the Sheriff’s office saying, “You have a job; we’re going to hire you.” I said, “Great, when?” She said, “July 23.” I said, “I’m getting married July 28th.” She said, “Either now or next year.” I called my fiancé and said, “Guess what? The honeymoon’s cancelled. The good news is I got a job. So we’re not going to starve, and we’re going to be able to buy a car.”
Find your own path.
I thought that there were more women in law enforcement at the time. I didn’t realize I was really at the front end. When I started working, my first assignment was at the southeast precinct. The women’s locker room was a janitor’s storage room that had been converted. To get to the women’s locker room, we had to walk through the men’s locker room. Luckily I came from a big family with a lot of boys, so seeing men in their underwear wasn’t that shocking.
Show your mettle.
I was 22 years old. I had a very sheltered life. I think my new coworkers looked at me like, “What’s she doing here?” But once I started working side by side with them, they became very accepting. I got in my first fight just three or four months on the job. Once that happened, I think everybody, myself included, breathed a sigh of relief.
It was one of those “aha” moments, I guess. I worked alone in a patrol car. I had to learn right away that when I was doing my job I had to survive by my verbal skills or my physical skills. I got a call of a drunk man at a mini-mart disturbing customers. He wasn’t a huge guy, but he was pretty stocky, like 5-11, maybe 180 pounds, pretty muscular. He was drunk, drunk and obnoxious, and bothering people. Well, I walked up to him, and I was feeling pretty full of myself, and I was going to use my excellent verbal skills to convince him that he would be better off to just let me give him a ride to detox than to arrest him. I was trying to reason with him. As I was trying to talk with him, he balled up his fist and just slugged me as hard as he could on the side of my head. And it didn’t hurt. This was the “aha” moment for me.
Use your anger.
As soon as he hit me, I was instantly angry. All I could think of was “You s.o.b., I’m trying to be nice to you, and you hit me.” As soon as the anger hit, the adrenalin rush was right there with it. With the adrenalin rush came a real surge of strength and resolve to take care of business with this guy. It was very clear right away that this was not going to be a nice ride to detox. So I sprung into action. I lunged forward, grabbed him by the hair, pulled him down and kicked him right in the groin as hard as I could. The next “aha” moment was he just crumpled and fell to the ground. And that felt great. That was a real turning point both for me and my coworkers. Once they could see you were there to work and you weren’t afraid, that’s all they wanted.
Know when to step away.
I worked undercover in the narcotics unit, and a couple of times during my career I worked vice, John patrol. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy undercover work, but it was very educational. At that time there weren’t very many female officers, so it was useful being a woman on surveillances. If [criminals] see two guys sitting in a car, they figure they’re cops. But if it’s a male and a female, especially at that time in the early ’80s, they didn’t make that assumption. [Rahr also did undercover John patrol in the early days of the Green River killings.] That was the one and only part of my job that my husband has ever objected to. I think everybody has their personal limits on things. My husband [William Rahr] said, “I just can’t stand the thought of men looking at you and thinking you’re a hooker.” I said, “That’s fair enough.” It just wasn’t worth creating heartache at home. It was easy to give that up.
Balance career and family.
It’s a very hard career to mesh with a family. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to speak to groups of young women and tell them, “Don’t think you can have it all.” When my kids were first born, I went through a time of being very angry with what I call the feminist movement. When I was in college what I heard and what I believed was, you can have it all, and by God, if you want to be anything, you have to have a career as well as a family. And as soon as my first son was born, I remember thinking, “Oh forget it, I changed my mind. I don’t want a career. I want to stay home with my baby.” It took me several years to come to terms with the career decision I had made. What I discovered was I had to make concessions on both sides. I had to go into career assignments that were less demanding when my kids were younger. When I am not at work, I am 100-percent focused on my family. I think that’s how I came to some peace with my career. My kids’ view of me is, when I’m home, I’m 100-percent Mom.
Hang on to your faith.
There have been points in my career where I have completely lost faith in humanity. When I was working sex crimes, I became an animal lover. I thought, “Animals don’t do these things. Animals are so superior. Humans are so disgusting.” Having kids really helps. At home our family is really very traditional and very old fashioned. When my boys were little, I was the PTA president. I could see all these wonderful good things going on in the community. That really helped to offset the bad things that I had seen working as a cop. I remember baseball season starting one year. There was the flag salute and kids in uniforms. I just had tears running out of my eyes, thinking, “This is so good.” If I didn’t have that, I think I would be a lot more cynical than I am.
[Knowing I was on the short list to be sheriff] was actually kind of an awkward time. I had my job to do running field operations, and Dave Reichert was still the sheriff, and people were making some assumptions. It was a little awkward there until the transition actually took place. I think that during the course of my 25 years opportunities have come available to me. I’ve got two kids that are grown, and I keep telling them, “Make your own opportunities.” I think there is a lot of truth to that. There’s also a little bit of luck in there, too. If you prepare yourself well, you can take advantage of an opportunity when it comes along. I certainly haven’t sat back and waited for things to be dropped in my lap.