Every day, Sue Rahr does something that gives her a queasy stomach.
Fear comes with the turf for the King County sheriff, but even if “you’re not just a little bit afraid, you’re not reaching high enough,” she told 40 Lake Washington School District high school students during a recent Kirkland Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Woodmark Hotel, which drew a crowd of more than 100.
For the students, the luncheon was part of a youth leadership conference sponsored by Google. Earlier in the day, youth visited Kirkland City Hall to acquaint themselves with city leaders, including Mayor James Lauinger, and listened to a speech on how to be your best by Paul Johns, retired Seattle Seahawks player and current assistant director of community relations for the team.
During the luncheon, Rahr, a Bellevue native and Newport High School graduate, spoke to Eastside students about courage.
As a sheriff she has learned that courage is recognizing a risk and making the choice to face that fear and do it anyway, she said.
“Every single one of you can make the decision to build the courage in yourself that’s necessary to meet whatever goals you set,” Rahr said. “I’m going to explain this by telling you about how scared I have been during my 30-year career as a police officer.”
Elected as King County’s first female sheriff in 2005, Rahr heads the state’s second-largest local police department and oversees more than 1,000 employees and a $117 million budget.
Rahr joined the King County Sheriff’s Office in 1979 and fresh out of police academy training, she had never gotten into a real “knock down, drag out fight with anybody,” she said. “Now, I grew up with six brothers and I thought I was pretty tough, but wrestling with your brothers is different than when you’re wrestling and fighting for your life and I really didn’t know how I would react.”
A couple weeks into her police career, she found out how she would react when her courage was tested for the first time. She had responded to a call in the Renton Highlands – a drunk man was harassing people at a mini mart.
“I’m 22 years old, thinking I’m pretty darned smart,” she recalled. She approached the man and told him, “Sir, you don’t want to go to jail. He looked at me and all of a sudden he just reared his arm back and – pow – right in the side of my head. Well, that was a life-changing moment for me,” she said amidst a room of laughter.
An adrenaline spike kicked in, she wasn’t afraid and she fell back on her six-brother training, she said.
“Thankfully, this man had a big, full head of hair and I just grabbed a couple of handfuls, pulled his head down toward me and did what my mom taught me to do with my knee and it worked like a charm,” she said as the crowd roared. “He dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes and I was overcome with – yes! That’s when I knew I was going to be a cop for the rest of my life.”
She wrestled the man into the back of her patrol car and didn’t feel any pain until an hour later. The incident taught her that her initial reaction would not be fear and she was able to handle the situation, which boosted her confidence.
As her career continued, she faced many dangers, including the time she got the call for a residential robbery in Renton. One suspect was armed with a sawed off shotgun, the other with a .357 gun. She realized she would not be able to live with herself or face her fellow officers if she “chickened out and ran away,” so she made the choice to respond to the incident. She arrested both suspects.
“Every time you do something that scares you and get through it, it gets easier the next time,” she told students.
But beyond fists and bullets, her ultimate test of courage during her career was surviving a political campaign five years ago. She had two opponents and a newspaper reporter who were “actively trying to undermine” her every step of the way. To overcome her fear, she worked long hours to prepare for events and avoid being embarrassed and humiliated in front of family, peers and two million voters.
It is so much safer, says Rahr, to stay where you are and “never try to do that thing you think you might be capable of. The courage to make that thoughtful calculated decision – that is the true greatest achievement.”