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In sheriff's race, Rahr's strength is her experience

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Editor's note: This is the first in a series of profiles of the three King County Sheriff's Office candidates. Today: Sheriff Sue Rahr. Wednesday: Sheriff's Sgt. Jim Fuda. Thursday: Seattle police Lt. Greg Schmidt.

Few who were close to it can ever forget that day more than six years ago, but Sue Rahr remembers more than just murder and mayhem.

Friday, May 28, 1999. A young man named Lonnie Davis Jr. rampaged through bucolic Brier and into neighboring Shoreline, first killing his mother and young nephew, then crashing during a flight from justice that left a motorcyclist an amputee.

After fleeing the wreck into a nearby neighborhood, Davis then beat one elderly woman to death and broke the neck of another, before taking refuge in a house stocked with guns.

It was there that Rahr and her deputies caught up with Davis, and it was there that his life ended: After a volatile standoff, a sheriff's marksman shot Davis dead.

(See our previous coverage for more information on this incident.)

Rahr, a veteran King County deputy who was then serving as Shoreline's police chief, took away more from the confrontation than grist for a cop's war stories.

As the leader charged with establishing the command post that day, she recognized that the Sheriff's Office wasn't up to snuff when handling such major dangers. Confusion and inexperience marred the response, Rahr says, as did a communications breakdown among officers using different radio frequencies.

In the end, the threat was stopped. But not before matters could've turned worse.

"From that moment forward," Rahr says, "I made it one of my top priorities to ensure that we were trained and equipped to utilize an incident command system for a major event."

Leave it to Rahr to always look for ways to learn and improve, supporters say, even from the worst of situations.

Throughout a 26-year career laden with commendation letters from the public and high performance evaluations from her bosses, Rahr has steadily climbed the ranks of the Sheriff's Office, from street patrol to every level of management, and then to the sheriff's chair.

Bright and articulate, the 48-year-old married mother of two from Bellevue has garnered a reputation as a creative problem solver, one more prone to use brains than brawn in getting the cuffs on suspects.

Rahr has excelled, says Larry Mayes, one of Rahr's former supervisors and a retired sheriff's chief, because she's willing to make hard choices.

"You may not like them, they might not always work," Mayes says, "but she's able to make decisions. That's what you need in a sheriff."

Critics arise within ranks

But these days, Rahr's tough decisions increasingly are met with tough questions -- especially among her own.

Critics have emerged within the Sheriff's Office and beyond to break the script of Rahr's career by characterizing her not as the inventive administrator with a street cop's pedigree that she's been cast, but as a career-climber with a vindictive streak who's put in far less time in the field than perceived.

"I just question her background and experience in being able to make a tough decision when she's under stress," says retired Capt. Forrest Inslee, Rahr's supervisor when she worked in the Drug Enforcement Unit in the early 1980s.

Such critiques have become more than just water-cooler talk.

Deputies George Alvarez and James Keller are now suing Rahr, among others, for her role in a disciplinary process that initially sought to fire them.

And federal authorities are now reviewing the sheriff's investigation of disgraced former vice Detective Dan Ring, whom Rahr allowed to retire rather than fire, despite 10 sustained department violations against him.

To critics, the knock against Rahr is that she's what one former deputy calls "an admini-lifer" -- a career manager detached from real police work. Deputies who'd hoped for change from the heavy-handed leadership under her predecessor, Dave Reichert, say they haven't seen it since Rahr filled his vacated seat in January.

The rank-and-file officers guild voted overwhelmingly in July to endorse Sgt. Jim Fuda over Rahr in the coming election. Then the captains' bargaining unit -- part of a different union that also represents sheriff's employees -- split a ballot between Rahr and Fuda, eight votes for Rahr to seven for Fuda. That union decided to withhold making an endorsement for sheriff.

Still, there's no question Rahr is the most experienced administrator among the three candidates now vying for the non-partisan sheriff's seat on the Sept. 20 primary ballot (Seattle police Lt. Greg Schmidt rounds out the field).

Throughout her career, Rahr has held more positions in more units than either opponent -- from patrol officer to supervisor, from narcotics detective to commander of such specialty units as gangs and internal investigations.

As the current sheriff and a former field operations chief, she's commanded hundreds of officers at a time. She's negotiated the Sheriff's Office's $110 million budget with the County Council, handled service contracts with its dozen contract cities, and dealt effectively with politicians and bureaucrats.

"My strength is my experience," Rahr says.

There's also no doubt that this sheriff's race is Rahr's to lose. As the handpicked successor of Reichert, Rahr has more name recognition, more money, more big-name endorsements and simply more clout than her opponents.

She was born Susan Lee Speight in Laramie, Wyo., the third of seven children -- and the only girl. "I'm quite used to functioning in a male-dominated environment," Rahr notes.

When Sue was 5, her father moved the family to Washington to take an engineer's job at The Boeing Co. The Speights settled in Bellevue, where Sue was a good student and became a cheerleader at Newport High. While working part-time as a teen, she met Bill Rahr -- a boy with long hair and a motorcycle from cross-town Sammamish High.

After dating five years and each graduating from Washington State University, the couple was set to marry in 1979. Five days before the wedding, Sue got a call from the King County Sheriff's Office. She'd been hired.

Rahr recalls telling Bill: "I've got a job, we're not going to starve. The bad news is, we're going to have to delay the honeymoon."

She excelled quickly on the job, co-creating one of the area's first sexual-abuse awareness classes for kids and volunteering to help domestic violence victims. Meanwhile, her thoroughness in report-taking and daily patrol work also won praise.

"You have a real aptitude for this profession and tremendous potential for career success," an early work evaluation reads.

Rahr saw her first -- and among her only -- career troubles after being involuntarily transferred to the Drug Enforcement Unit in 1982. She was the only woman in the unit under then-Sgt. Inslee, described as a hard-liner tough on underlings.

During that time, Rahr was reprimanded for failing to report to supervisors for three days a fender-bender she had gotten into with a department car.

And in her only bad performance evaluation, Inslee wrote that Rahr lost her composure -- and control of her gun to a suspect -- during an undercover sting that "placed everyone involved in serious danger."

Rahr disputes the account, saying that although the suspect grabbed her gun, she never lost control of it. She also says Inslee had "two sets of standards" -- one for men, one for women.

By and large, Rahr says, she's been treated fairly as a female in a mostly male department. She resisted taking affirmative-action promotions, turning one down in 1988 when she scored below the top officers, both men, on a promotions exam.

"I thought the person they were going to pass over was more qualified than me," she says. "I didn't turn it down to make a political statement."

'Able to deal ... effectively'

Other than the early rough spots, Rahr has faced few problems.

She's consistently had trouble meeting department firearms qualifications over the years, records show. And she's been disciplined twice for using department e-mail inappropriately.

Otherwise, her career on paper is exemplary, personnel records show. Rahr's creativity, hard work and smarts always have propelled her forward.

"She's an extremely intelligent person and because of that, she's able to deal with her peers and the rank and file effectively," said Frank Adamson, a retired Sheriff's Office chief who supervised Rahr.

Rahr made a name for herself as lieutenant of the now-defunct gang unit in the early 1990s, promoting it and the department region-wide through talks at local high schools and other police agencies. Such community outreach always has been a strong suit.

After ascending the ranks, Rahr became one of Reichert's trusted confidantes. When he vacated his sheriff's term in 2004 after winning a congressional seat, Reichert tapped Rahr as "the logical choice" to succeed him.

The King County Council later agreed, unanimously voting to appoint her sheriff.

Councilman Larry Phillips says Rahr isn't simply a Reichert clone. After years of butting heads with Reichert over budget issues, Phillips has found Rahr "a breath of fresh air."

"Where there's a problem, she's willing to admit there is a problem and find a constructive solution," Phillips says. "That's a welcome change."

Yet detractors say that during her career rise, Rahr has been retaliatory. Several deputies contacted for this story declined to go on the record, saying they feared retribution.

During the Alvarez-Keller investigation -- a case in which the deputies were accused of roughing up an informant -- Rahr sent an e-mail last year to department brass about why she and another commander initially recommended that both officers be fired.

The deputies remain on the job today, receiving only suspensions after separate criminal charges were dropped following a trial that ended in a hung jury.

In the e-mail, Rahr warned others against criticizing the recommendation. "To do so, in my mind, is tantamount to telling me you no longer want to be part of this team. Rather, I expect you to go the extra yard ... to defend (the) position as if it were your own."

Rahr says the memo was meant only to get the command staff "to stick together," but it got distributed to line officers, who perceived a different message than what she said she intended.

As the newest top cop, Rahr says she's still getting use to "being a target" of criticism.

She'd rather focus on her priorities -- stamping out methamphetamine problems, improving regional criminal justice resources and maintaining relationships with cities with which the department contracts to provide law enforcement.

Rahr envisions herself as sheriff for the next five to 10 years -- a job she sees as her ultimate career goal. It's the only job Rahr wants.

"I'm already actively engaged in making certain changes and improvements," Rahr says. "I don't have to spend a couple of years learning the job before I can become effective."

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