King County Sheriff Sue Rahr plans to leave office early, and is hoping to give an advantage to her chief deputy in the next election.

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One way or another, King County Sheriff Sue Rahr plans to leave office before her term is done at the end of 2013, and she wants to handpick her successor.

Rahr said she plans to appoint Chief Deputy Steve Strachan interim sheriff in hopes it gives him a better chance of winning a four-year term as the county’s top cop. In essence, she wants to anoint Strachan as more than a one-year fill-in.

“He’s the person I’d like to see succeed me,” said Rahr, 55. “The game plan is to leave a year early. We need to do succession planning and I owe it to the sheriff’s department and the public to plan for a seamless transition.”

Rahr, who has applied to become executive director of the state’s police-training academy, was first elected in 2005 — after she was appointed sheriff earlier that year, replacing Dave Reichert, who was elected to Congress. It was Reichert who had recommended Rahr for the job, much in the same way that Rahr is now selecting her own successor.

Before her four-year duties are done, though, she says she’s ready to “move into the next chapter, ready to go to bed at night without a pager.”

If she doesn’t get the training-academy job, she says she still plans to step down as sheriff in order to give Strachan a chance to prove himself to the department and voters. Rahr says she’s not sure what she would do — except she won’t run for political office. “Absolutely not,” she said.

She acknowledged that while she owes the public a full four-year term as sheriff, “I think I can serve the public best by making sure a qualified successor is ready to go.”

Voters would get to “test drive” Strachan, a former Kent police chief, she reasoned.

Ex-chief and politician

Strachan, who turns 47 on Thursday, is well-qualified for the post, she said. Before he served five years as Kent’s chief, Strachan was police chief in Lakeville, Minn., where he worked his way up the ranks from patrol officer. He also served as a city council member and state representative in Minnesota. He was appointed to statewide law-enforcement commissions by Govs. Jesse Ventura and Tim Pawlenty.

King County’s sheriff oversees a department with 1,000 employees and a $150 million budget. The department is the chief law-enforcement agency in the county’s unincorporated areas, and in 12 cities through contracts. It also is the police department for Sound Transit and Metro Transit.

A nonpartisan office, the sheriff is elected every four years, with the next election scheduled for 2013.

Rahr said she is one of four finalists vying to become executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, which trains all police in the state except state troopers. She and other finalists are scheduled to be interviewed Feb. 23. The 14 commissioners who oversee the training agency may offer the job to a preferred finalist that day.

Rahr would be taking a sizable pay cut. The commission job pays a maximum of $110,000. Rahr’s salary at the county this year is $170,153.

Rahr has spent 32 years in law enforcement, starting with the sheriff’s department after graduating from Washington State University, and working her way up to its highest post. The state training job would allow her to build on work she’s been doing under a federal grant on procedural justice, which Rahr describes as the concept that “people care as much about how police officers treat them as they do about the outcome of their interaction with police.”

“I think I could really improve the way we train our cops,” she said.

“Good reputation”

Although Strachan may be considered an outsider by the sheriff’s department rank-and-file, Rahr does not see that as a problem. She was prepared for some resistance when she named him chief deputy in January 2011, she said. “But that has not been the case, which I attribute to his good reputation in Kent,” where Strachan won praise from City Hall and patrol officers. “He was outstanding, very innovative, with a lot of energy,” said John Hodgson, Kent’s chief administrative officer.

Strachan hired a crime analyst to focus on data, hot spots and emerging crime trends, Hodgson said. He also tried to strengthen police connections to neighborhoods and overcome distrust, particularly with immigrants from countries where law officers are often corrupt.

After a year of running day-to-day operations at the sheriff’s department for Rahr, Strachan says he’s not an unknown quantity.

The chief challenge at the county, he says, is dealing with budget constraints. That means, for instance, carefully managing overtime. His staff just worked with a Boeing consultant, he said, to more efficiently schedule deputies around the county.

Strachan says he intends to run for sheriff in 2013. Though he served as a Republican in the Minnesota legislature — a “pro-union, pro-environment, liberal Republican,” he said — he describes himself as a political independent who votes for candidates of both parties.

“I have no involvement with any kind of partisan politics and have no intention of doing that in the future,” he said.

King County Executive Dow Constantine lauded Strachan’s willingness to bring business practices to the sheriff’s office. “We appreciate how collaboratively Steve has worked with us on a number of issues,” Constantine said.

The Metropolitan King County Council has the final say on who completes the remainder of the sheriff’s term. In recent vacancies for county executive and council, the council has chosen so-called “caretakers” — Kurt Triplett and Jan Drago — who did not seek election to full terms. In this case, Rahr has designated an interim successor in Strachan, and the council would then pick him or someone else to serve as sheriff until the next general election. That could be 2012 or 2013, depending on when Rahr steps down.

“I’d give Steve every consideration. I expect my colleagues have similar feelings. He’d be a serious contender in any scenario,” said Bob Ferguson, chair of the council’s Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee.

But the council has not simply rubber-stamped candidates for recent vacancies, he noted. And it picked Drago and Triplett, in part, because it did not want to give an appointee an electoral advantage.

“Certainly there’s a bit of a trend there, but that history would not necessarily be determinative for the next vacancy,” he said.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com