For former King County sheriff, failed election turns into victory
After 26 years in law enforcement, former King County Sheriff Steve Strachan found himself without a job last year when he lost the election to John Urquhart. Today the new chief of the Bremerton police says it’s all worked out for the best.
Seattle Times staff reporter
BREMERTON — After a 26-year career in law enforcement, Steve Strachan abruptly found himself unemployed last year.
He had resigned as chief of the Kent Police Department in late 2010 when he was recruited to the King County Sheriff’s Office by then-Sheriff Sue Rahr, who had hand-picked him as her successor. After nearly a year learning the job, he was appointed sheriff when Rahr stepped down in 2012.
But when it came time to retain the seat, Strachan lost a contested election in November to the department’s retired spokesman, John Urquhart.
Strachan (pronounced “Stran”) acknowledges it wasn’t the outcome he had expected, but he says he’s not bitter. In fact, things may have turned out for the best.
Sitting in his corner office at the Bremerton Police Department, Strachan swivels in his chair and surveys the panoramic view of Mount Rainier, Dyes Inlet and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.
“I love it,” says the city’s top cop, who makes $138,000 a year and oversees 57 commissioned officers. “You know what I saw out the window of my last two jobs? Sex-offender housing.”
Strachan, 48, accepted the Bremerton police chief’s job in February after he was the unanimous choice of a hiring group that included the mayor and council members, other city officials, police leadership and guild representatives.
In August, he and his wife moved into their new home in a tight-knit Bremerton neighborhood.
He says he likes the small and unpretentious city of 38,000 at the center of Kitsap County.
Though Bremerton is sometimes belittled, Strachan calls it a genuine city with “real neighborhoods,” a fascinating history and a diverse population.
With a naval base, a military shipyard, the county’s largest hospital and a network of ferries, freeways and social services, Bremerton draws in a range of people, from professionals and skilled workers to problem characters, said Strachan. He sees one of his biggest challenges as law enforcement’s constant intersection with the mentally ill and how best to handle it.
“We’re lucky to get him,” said police Capt. Tom Wolfe, drawing on a baseball analogy. “We’re the Tacoma Rainiers, not the Mariners, and we just pulled (former major league manager) Joe Torre as our coach. We’re headed in all the right directions.”
Reporting the news
Strahan never planned on a career in law enforcement.
While majoring in communications at the University of Minnesota, he got an internship at a small radio station, where one of his jobs was collecting police reports from deputies, he said. It wasn’t long before he realized he enjoyed hearing about law-enforcement work.
“He said he wanted to do the news, not report it,” recalled Sue Strachan, his wife of 26 years and an attorney at the Washington State Bar Association in Seattle.
Strachan got a part-time job as a jail guard and loved it.
“One of my chiefs once told me we have front-row tickets to the greatest show on Earth, and it’s true,” Strachan said. “You see everybody at their best and at their worst.”
He switched his college major to sociology and joined the Police Department in Lakeville, Minn., about 25 miles south of Minneapolis.
David Bellows, who was Strachan’s training officer at Lakeville police and is now a county sheriff, said he could tell Strachan “was going to be special” when he walked in the door.
He was young, just 21, said Bellows, but “he was very mature and responsible. He was well-read and intelligent, and he could walk into any room and feel comfortable talking with anyone. He had a well-developed skill set.”
Strachan said his first call taught him one of the most important principles of police work: humility.
He had a few years of college under his belt and had undergone hundreds of hours of training. He had a badge and a gun and he thought he “had it all figured out.”
But the call was about a horse that had gotten out of its corral and wandered onto a freeway, and he was a city boy.
“I walked up to the horse and I realized I had no clue what to do,” he recalled.
While still a police officer in Lakeville, Strahan earned a master’s degree in public administration from Minnesota State University, Mankato, served on the City Council in Farmington, and was then elected to the Minnesota state House of Representatives.
He was offered a position as chief of the Lakeville Police Department and did not run for re-election, but his experience in the state House deepened his understanding of, and respect for, well-crafted public policy, he said.
Sue Strachan said her husband could very well have lived out the rest of his life in Minnesota had she not wanted a little more adventure. She moved to the Pacific Northwest and applied to law school while her husband searched for a new job.
In 2006 he was offered the police chief’s job in Kent.
Mike Painter, a former Kent officer who is now a director of professional services at the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs, said it was no exaggeration to say Strachan was “beloved” by his officers.
Not that Strachan is without flaws.
Several former colleagues said he had a habit of looking through people when he was lost in thought, a habit that was sometimes misunderstood as a snub.
Sgt. Cindi West, a spokeswoman for the King County Sheriff’s Office, said she loved working with Strachan when he was sheriff, but she did have to soothe people’s feelings sometimes.
“People would ask me if they’d done something wrong,” she said. “I had to say, ‘No, that’s just how he is.’ ”
Painter also said Strachan has a disconcerting manner of dealing with meetings and conversations he finds tedious, boring or repetitious.
“Numerous times we were sitting there talking about something that we thought was very interesting and he would just, all of sudden, get up and leave ... and he wouldn’t come back. He was gone,” said Painter.
When Rahr recruited Strachan to the Sheriff’s Office in 2010, she was open about her intent. “He’s the person I’d like to see succeed me,” she said at the time.
But when it came time to run for election to retain the $160,000-a-year job, Strachan found himself facing Urquhart, who for years had been the high-profile spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office before his retirement in September 2011.
It didn’t take long for the race to turn contentious.
Urquhart talked about an audit of the Sheriff’s Office that found problems with the complaint process and internal investigations. He also accused Strachan of gutting the department’s internal-affairs division, shuffling paperwork around so that civilian complaints were not addressed, and failing to properly investigate officer-involved shootings.
Strachan countered by saying he had not even been at the Sheriff’s Office when the incidents most criticized in the audit had occurred, and the inconsistent policies for handling use of force and misconduct had been drafted before his arrival.
In an August interview, Strachan declined to speak negatively about Urquhart or the Sheriff’s Office.
“I knew it was an election going into it,” he said. “Anything can happen.”
In retrospect, Sue Strachan said, they had underestimated how well known Urquhart was as a spokesman and the impact that would have on the race.
Strachan also acknowledges he made some decisions while sheriff that proved very unpopular among some deputies, in particular closing the Maple Valley office to save money.
First order of business
As new chief of the Bremerton force, he made it his first priority to have the department and its policies audited and assessed by a team of law-enforcement executives from the sheriffs and police chiefs association.
The association agreed with Strachan’s assessment that the department had “good bones” — officers who care about the public, and dedicated staff in key positions.
However, policies to help the department handle accountability issues and complaints of misconduct must be strengthened, the audit found.
Strachan sees it as a perfect opportunity to prevent accountability and misconduct problems that have plagued other agencies.
The department’s new policies state that complaint forms must be easy to understand and access, and all reports of officer misconduct must be investigated, not just reviewed. In addition, he wants to require that officers report misconduct if they see it and that serious complaints go directly to the chief.
Strachan said it’s much easier for police officers to keep trust in a community than it is to regain it once lost.
“What we do is an incredible honor and a true privilege,” he said. “The way we do it matters.”
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.