When Katie Larson joined the King County Sheriff’s Office, her plan was to stay for about 10 years and then move on to law school.
At the end of June this year, Larson retired as Woodinville’s chief of police after seven years in the position and 37 years in law enforcement.
“Once I started, I never looked back,” Larson said.
During a college internship with the sheriff’s office, she said, she felt like the career would allow her to make at least a small difference, every day. She started as a patrol deputy in 1984 and has seen some major shifts in policing during her tenure, she said.
At the time, there was no mental health training, no de-escalation, and no mental health support for the officers themselves.
“You were just supposed to be able to handle it all,” she said.
She’s been heartened to see the de-stigmatization of therapy and more resources being provided for officers, given that much of what they experience is difficult to handle and can’t be unseen.
She believes de-escalation was a technique intuitively employed by the best officers, she said, even before they were taught how. Patrol deputies rode by themselves, which incentivized communication over physical altercation, Larson said.
“I don’t need to get into fights,” she said. “It doesn’t prove anything.”
Larson highlighted the fact that Woodinville has very low rates of use of force – in 2019 , there was one use-of-force incident out of 179 arrests, she said. Last year, there was one incident that occurred when two police officers were shot and injured by a car prowling suspect. The suspect was shot and killed during the shootout.
She said she's glad to be seeing more training provided at the academy, especially regarding intervening when an officer witnesses another officer using excessive force.
Larson’s career has run the gamut of positions at the sheriff’s office, including serving as a prostitution decoy as a 22-year-old new recruit and later working as a detective on the Green River task force after the arrest of Gary Ridgway.
Working on the task force and connecting with the families of the Green River Killer’s victims changed her perspective and gave her insight into ways the department could evolve in how it communicated with victims' loved ones.
When she was brought onto the task force, she said, she noticed that many of the families had not been contacted in years, despite the investigation continuing on. She brought in the families and introduced them to the detectives handling their family members’ cases.
She also brought in counselors for the grieving relatives – this was one of the first times the department had done something like that, Larson said.
“It had a very profound effect on me because their grief was palpable,” she said.
She was working in internal affairs for the sheriff's office in 2014 when the former Woodinville Police Chief Sydney Jackson reached out and asked if Larson would want to replace her.
The city has contracted with the sheriff's office for policing services since 1993.
The timing was perfect, Larson said, because it allowed her the opportunity to take the lessons she’d learned over the course of her career and use them to shape a department that fit her own vision.
She wanted to create a team of very different types of people with a wide variety of skill sets, she said. During her tenure, she also created a mentoring program in the department as a way to help recruit more officers.
Larson credited much of the change she was able to enact with the strong partnership and support she received from City Manager Brandon Buchanan.
“I’ve really appreciated the opportunities afforded to me by the city manager to experiment,” she said.
Giving her that flexibility, Buchanan said, was an easy call to make. He echoed a sentiment made by Steve Jobs, in which the Apple founder said “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do.”
“I firmly believe in that: hire the best and give them the room to shine,” Buchanan said in an email. “Katie Larson is certainly on that list. She not only has the hard-won expertise in law enforcement, but also cares about the work and community she has served for the last seven years that has allowed her to propel that department forward in a genuine and meaningful way.”
Larson said she knows law enforcement still has a lot of room for improvement. For Woodinville's department, she hopes to see it get involved in community conversations and education about racism and implicit bias.
She’d also like to see crime prevention become a standard consideration taken in new development as the city grows.
Her replacement, BJ Myers, shares her vision, Larson said. They have worked together frequently, and she said she was impressed with his work as head of the sheriff’s office special assault unit and the new partnerships he helped form.
“He’s going to be an awesome chief,” she said.