Sue Rahr’s vision for police reform is bold, compassionate, and achievable.
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​Is it possible to get to a place where police officers serve as guardians rather than warriors? Sue Rahr thinks so.

If we believe 1950s TV and Norman Rockwell, the local police department in America used to be a friendly part of the neighborhood.

Over the last few decades, that's changed dramatically. Crime rates are at their lowest in decades, but citizen distrust of the police has never been higher. Police departments are increasingly militarized, with weapons that wouldn't be out of place on a battlefield. While many police officers are just and fair protectors, some officers are guilty of racial profiling that unfairly targets young black men. Many citizens feel as if they're more likely to see police departments protect their own officers instead of real justice being served.


There are different ways of looking at the disconnect between the police and the public they are sworn to protect. One is to let it be and not acknowledge that something isn't right. Another is to admit that things are broken and embrace systemic reform.

A retired sheriff and the executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, Sue Rahr walks the second path, attempting to change the system from within.

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Sue Rahr is a multi-term sheriff, and she's leading a change in the way cops are trained in Washington. A Starbucks original series.

Posted by Upworthy on Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Rahr served with Washington state's King County Sheriff's Office for 25 years before she was elected as the state's first female sheriff in 2005. Rahr retired after a dozen years in that role, but her work was far from over. In 2012 she started working with the Criminal Justice Training Commission, where she overhauled their training programs. By 2014, she was appointed to President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a role she served in until 2015.

Under Rahr's leadership, the training program for Washington state police recruits tries a different approach — based on Plato.

"In Plato's vision of a perfect society — in a republic that honors the core of democracy — the greatest amount of power is given to those called the Guardians. Only those with the most impeccable character are chosen to bear the responsibility of protecting the democracy," Rahr is quoted as saying in a report.

Retired Sheriff Sue Rahr. All images via Starbucks Upstanders, used with permission.

Before Rahr's tenure, the 10,000 police trainees who attended the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission each year would go through a five-month bootcamp-based program that was designed to make them into obedient warriors. It included, among other things, ritual public humiliation and physical punishments.

What sometimes resulted when officers were integrated into the community was predictable — and avoidable.

As Rahr wrote in a paper in 2015, "Despite the way they were treated during their training, we expect [officers] to treat the powerless people they encounter in the community with dignity and respect. Why are we then surprised when some officers treat both suspects and citizens with the disdain and detachment they saw modeled by those in power at the academy?"

A new graduate of the Washington state police training program celebrates with his family as Sue Rahr and others look on.

Under the new program, trainees are treated less like soldiers and more like team members. Instead of public humiliation by their commanding officers, they're given a pocket constitution to remind them of the social purpose of their role. The emphasis on physical training remains, but it is supplemented with responsible weapons training and new programs like LEED (Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity) and Blue Courage, a self-care program designed to help officers manage stress and avoid burnout.  

This new way of training recruits is still in its early days. A five-year study to determine its effectiveness began in 2014 and won’t deliver results until 2020.

In the meantime, there are many challenges ahead, including from Rahr's fellow officers. When her new program was introduced, nearly half of the training staff quit in protest. In an interview with NPR, Rahr revealed that some officers and police administrators have refused to read the presidential task force report, let alone implement its recommendations. Still, Rahr isn't giving up.

Police reform is not going to be easy or quick. But Rahr's program shows that there is hope and that there are ways to change the system from within.

As Charlotte smoulders, and tensions are never higher, it is good to know that many people are thinking about ways we can move forward.

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