King County’s female police chiefs outline their career paths.
Rain. Coffee. Traffic. These top the list for what Seattle and the Eastside cities are best known for. But what isn’t apparent at first notice are the many women leading law enforcement agencies around the county.
They are the chiefs in Seattle, Kirkland, Redmond, Bothell, Sammamish and Black Diamond, as well as the county sheriff. They’re also leaders in the King County Police Chiefs and Sheriff Association (KCPCSA).
They credit the trailblazers who came before them in King County — including Sue Rahr, the first female sheriff who now directs the Criminal Justice Training Commission, Robin Fenton, who worked her way up from patrol officer to technical services division chief, Bonnie Soule, the first female K-9 officer, and others — with paving the path.
King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht’s thing was always sports. At age four, she recalls playing wiffle ball with her brother and dad. In college, she played for the University of Washington basketball team and then joined the Western Washington University troop.
“At that time (at the end of the 1970s and the 1980s) there wasn’t much for women in athletics outside of university days,” she said.
Her softball coach in Bellingham is what led her to law enforcement. The coach was the first woman to be deployed in the field as a Washington Department of Corrections Officer.
“As we were talking she said ‘You should really consider going into law enforcement,’” Johanknecht said.
And through the course of her lifetime, she had other friends join. She took a ride along with Sue Peters, a now-retired detective with the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO). Six months later, Johanknecht was in the police academy. On Jan. 8, 1985, she began her next big thing — a lengthy career in law enforcement.
“Everything changes from call to call, day to day,” Johanknecht said.
Her upbringing factored in. As the middle child among five siblings, Johanknecht acted as a peacemaker. Other life experiences created a public-service oriented mindset: “It’s more about wanting to do (something) for other people,” she said.
Her journey began as a deputy in the north precinct, and she rose through the ranks, eventually leading two precincts. She was the first woman to command the KCSO’s SWAT team TAC-30. She admits she never aspired to be the sheriff of King County, but that her journey — now serving her second year of her four-year term — has been a great one. She plans to run for sheriff again.
Like others in law enforcement, Johanknecht said she’s faced her share of challenges, and had to learn to be flexible and willing to adapt to changing laws, as well as the increased dynamic use of technology. Sometimes it was being told “No” on an assignment or shift she wanted. And taking the lesson from the nos.
Being out as a lesbian, and the first county sheriff to be openly gay, could have been a challenge, but for her, it wasn’t.
“I found so many amazing people accepting of who you are as a person doing good work and you’re not defined by your sexual orientation,” she said.
She thinks other women should consider a career in law enforcement.
“You want people from a variety of different places, let alone gender difference,” she said. “All those things put into the mix, used to problem solve, makes us better at what we do.”
Michelle Bennett has been Sammamish’s police chief since 2016 (as the first female to hold the job since the city incorporated in 1999) and is currently the president of the KCPCSA and FBI National Academy Board.
She said the progressiveness of King County is one of the qualities that attracted her to jobs here, and that the concentration of female police chiefs here is unique, but not totally surprising.
“Seattle is progressive, and King County is progressive, so that might be part of it, or maybe we just had the right skillset to get into the job,” Bennett said. “I don’t really think about gender until somebody asks about it. When I was younger, it was a much bigger deal. You had to prove yourself.”
She recently served as the police chief in Maple Valley, but started her career in Shoreline, where she went to high school. She knew she wanted to be a police officer since she was 15 years old, and was hired on when she was 21.
“I dealt with not only being female in a largely male profession, but also being really young,” she said. “And in 1990, it was interesting times. I’m glad I went through it, but it’s way different now, in every realm, on every level.”
For more women to enter the field, Bennett said there has to be a “cultural shift,” “starting with little girls in elementary school.”
She’s trying to pay it forward, with training, mentoring and even attending a “show and tell” for a girl from Black Diamond. “Four or five women in different uniforms,” including Black Diamond Police Chief Jamey Kiblinger, went to the school to surprise the student and her classmates.
“We went out to the playground at recess, and you would have thought we were rock stars,” Bennett said. “Most of them had not seen a woman police officer.”
After Shoreline, Bennett went to work at KSCO, and technically still does, because Sammamish contracts with the sheriff’s office for its police services. At the county, one of her roles was in diversity recruiting.
“You have to get people hired on, but then you have to have people who are going to mentor those women to want to be in supervision roles, and the county does a great job of that. So you have to have your agency and culture set up,” she said.
Working with others in King County, including Marcia Harnden with Bellevue police and Mike Johnson in Bothell, she started the Northwest Women’s Law Enforcement Network to host women in policing workshops, panels and career fairs.
“Your future is not set by any kind of artificial standard that someone else puts there,” Bennett said. “What are you interested in? Do you like people, do you like things that are different, do you like helping, do you like serving?”
She said she enjoys interacting with the community, whether it’s at Coffee with a Cop events, or through her Healthy Communities Coalition. She said she’s enjoyed her career, because every day has been different.
“You can be a wife and a mother and do this job,” she said. “I would not have chosen a different career. Definitely there have been challenges and will continue to be challenges, but I can’t imagine having done anything else.”
Carol Cummings has been in law enforcement for 37 years, and the chief of the Bothell Police Department since 2011. She said the amount of women leaders in King County is pretty special.
“I don’t know any area in the nation that has this concentration of female chiefs,” she said. “They might be out there, because nobody’s talked about it.”
Her career started in Oregon, in the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department. She was thinking about becoming an emergency room nurse, until “somebody, as a joke, told me that they were hiring for deputy sheriffs.” She thought the environment would be similar, with “things coming at you fairly quickly and every day being different.”
She said that when she started, the role of a “policewoman” that would help with juvenile cases was much more common than a female officer or deputy sheriff working the road.
“It was a pretty new thing. Back then, there were very, very few women in it,” she said, adding that there were three women in her training class.
“I think it took a little while for them to figure out what a successful police officer that’s a woman would look like, because they hadn’t seen that before,” she said. “The traits of being direct and appropriately assertive weren’t something that went hand in hand with how people saw women.”
After that, she moved to the KCSO where she served for 27 years, including as the Special Operations Division chief, one of four chiefs under Rahr. She gives Dave Reichert, the sheriff before Rahr, credit for “promoting people for what their skill set was, rather than [gender].”
She said that one of her favorite stories at the beginning of her career was of Donna Nolan, who had been interviewed by a reporter after being one of the first women to go out on patrol in King County.
“She was a chief when I was there, and she showed me the newspaper article she had where she had been given a purse for her gun and handcuffs,” she said. “They actually ask in the article what her husband thought of her being a police officer, and if he was ok with it.”
She worked with Rebecca Norton, Laurie Goldsmith, Sue Cottingham, Soule and Fenton, but not closely, until later in their careers.
“At first, at least in the precinct that I worked, they wouldn’t have one woman work on the same shift as another, and when there were more of us, they wouldn’t have us on same side of the district,” Cummings said. “Now, you wouldn’t even think about that.”
She said that during the 1990s, she started seeing more women enter the law enforcement field, but after 9/11, there “seemed to be a drop-off in women applying.”
“It’s speculation, but we kind of went from community policing to homeland security,” she said. “Another thing was the economy was really rolling, so there were more options.”
Police don’t get the most positive news coverage now, she said, though she knows officers are trying to make a difference in their communities.
“There’s been a national narrative with quite a bit of negativity, which is so unfortunate because the work that’s done is so tremendous,” she said.
She said that the biggest issues she sees in Bothell are property crime, homelessness, mental health and drug issues. She’s helped to spearhead some solutions, including the RADAR/navigator program that places a mental health professional in police patrol cars during relevant calls.
“What we do today, we’re going to learn from and it’s going to look very different five years from now,” she said. “Ten years ago if you told me that we needed a mental health professional embedded into our police department, it wouldn’t have made sense, and now I can’t imagine why we hadn’t thought of it earlier.”
She’s also partnering with community organizations, including Cops and Clergy. She said she buys into the idea that law enforcement officers are the “guardians” of the community.
“The impact you can make is so huge. I can’t imagine not wanting to do a job like this,” she said.
Cherie Harris has served as chief of the Kirkland Police Department since 2016. She did ROTC in high school and college and wanted to go into the military, but said law enforcement offered a more solid career, with good pay, benefits, retirement and opportunities, especially for women.
“You can do so many things in this career. You can be a detective, you can be a K-9 handler. Anything that the men can do, you can do,” she said. “Gender is not a barrier. And then, you can also raise a family if you want to.”
She attended Washington State University, where she was a volunteer and intern for a program that prepared students for a career in policing. They did traffic control and security at football games, gave escorts across campus during the night and generally served as “extra eyes and ears.”
“I realized it was something I was super interested in,” she said, adding that she knew the field was male-dominated, but wasn’t intimidated.
She was the only woman in her class at the police academy, but she enjoyed the training. She recalled when the recruits had to do a “fight for life” with boxing gloves for one minute.
“They told my partner that he was going to have to fight a man after he was done fighting me, which really made me mad,” she said. “As soon as they said go, I went crazy on him… I kind of split his eye open… You shouldn’t underestimate a woman, ever, on the streets or in competition.”
She started her career at the WSU Police Department, before moving to Monroe, then to Kirkland as a captain in 2012.
She said that though she thinks law enforcement “is a great career for women,” her department has seen fewer women applying and testing for open positions. Last year, Kirkland had 1,007 applicants, and 124 were women.
“We’ve been working really hard on recruiting, but not everyone wants to do this job,” Harris said. “There’s some liability… and there are so many opportunities to do anything today.”
She said it’s equally important to recruit and retain officers by making work fun and being open to change. For example, Kirkland just started allowing its officers to have facial hair, and is discussing visible tattoos.
Harris said she’s had some great mentors in her career, including Ann Kirkpatrick, the former police chief in Spokane, and Colleen Wilson, who was the chief in Monroe when Harris served there, before recently retiring as the chief of the police department at the Port of Seattle. In 1993, Wilson was the first female police chief in the state of Washington.
“This is an occupation where you can connect, make a difference, solve puzzles, solve crimes, make sure justice is upheld, and help people,” Harris said.
The job is “about people,” she said, and her leadership style involves collaboration and building relationships. As chief, she practices “servant leadership,” and said she sees policing as a “community caretaking function.” She noted the initiative of her officers to take meals to winter shelters at local churches, and keep blankets in their patrol cars to hand out to people in need.
“The cops have huge hearts. They really do,” she said. “People meet [police officers] and they think they’re gruff and mean because they get a ticket, and that’s the only interaction they ever have.”
The biggest issues in Kirkland are heroin, property crimes and social issues like homelessness and mental health. Kirkland has been working with Bothell and other communities on the navigator program and a team approach.
“Kirkland Police Department absolutely cares about our community. We are invested in making sure it’s safe, welcoming and inclusive,” Harris said. “And we’re hiring.”
There’s one story Redmond Police Chief Kristi Wilson points to when recanting moments that shaped her early on, in her career of more than 30 years in law enforcement.
A person she had a lot of contact with had signs of drug problems. Through their interactions, at times jail was the right place. In other moments, getting treatment was the path, Wilson said. And years later, after he had gotten himself through rehabilitation, married and had small children, he returned to the station.
“You’re dealing with people in our profession that at times are in tremendous lows in their life,” Wilson said. “You have to remember as police officers, this point in time doesn’t make up who they are.”
He said “thank you for not giving up on me. It was tough but look what I’ve accomplished now,” Wilson remembers.
Wilson grew up in Burien and hasspent her whole life in the Seattle area. She attended college in Ellensburg at Central Washington University and has a master’s degree from Gonzaga in Spokane.
“When I started there wasn’t a lot of women in law enforcement,” Wilson said. Now law enforcement appears as a more prominent option for women, she added. “You see young women who are openly thinking ‘I can do that’ and not coming into the automatic idea that the job is not for them … The more they see women in law enforcement and see women officers, the more visual cues they have that this is about service to our community and we are capable of providing that service as anyone is.”