For the first time in more than 25 years, the Toppenish Police Department will be without one of its most recognizable, most beloved officers.
Sgt. Sandra Shah officially resigned from the force June 26 to begin a new career adventure as a special agent with the Washington State Gambling Commission. Moving on after more than two decades wasn’t an easy decision for Shah, but she will always remember the personal and professional bonds she formed around the Lower Valley community.
“The best part about the past 25 years are the lifelong friendships I have built,” said Shah, who joined TPD as a reserve officer in 1996 and became a full-time patrol officer in July 1997. “Anywhere I go in this community, people recognize me and appreciate me. The best part about working here for all these years is the relationships. That’s the biggest thing I’m going to take away.”
Shah, 50, believes her ability to relate to people of all ages and backgrounds has provided her with a unique perspective on life in the Lower Yakima Valley.
“I consider myself very fortunate to have done this job for so many years,” said Shah, a native of Seattle. “People are my thing, and I know how to show them that I’m on their side. I have found that most people, if you show them respect, will respect you back.”
Her approachable, fun-loving nature ultimately led to her being promoted to sergeant in 2016. Just as she did as a patrol officer and school resource officer, Shah has used her personal-relations skills to her advantage in leading her unit the past six years. Her commitment to helping others resulted in her being named the 2019 Employee of the Year for the City of Toppenish.
“My team is very close,” she said. “We’re always able to work through our problems by communicating with each other and talking things through. Rather than being a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of leader, I just talk to them as equals. From my experience, that communication style is much more effective.”
Shah remembers coming up through the ranks as a young female officer in the late 1990s, and she admits it wasn’t always easy. She often had to work twice as hard as her male counterparts to earn respect, and even then, she occasionally felt underestimated and overlooked.
But Shah was fortunate to have had some quality role models over the years — guys like the late Fred Morris (aka “LT”), Steve Gay (Zillah Police Department) and Chad Michael (Yakima County Sheriff’s Office) — who not only respected her as a person but also valued her as a fellow law enforcement officer.
“Starting my career in a male-dominated profession was hard at times,” Shah said. “I was the first female officer in the Valley, and I was constantly trying to prove myself. But guys like LT, Steve and Chad always stood behind me and supported me. They helped me push through during the tough times, and I will always appreciate them for that.”
Advocate and Friend
Aside from the relationships she built and the camaraderie she enjoyed with her colleagues, Shah also knows in her heart that she made a real difference in the community — most notably, in the lives of local kids.
After spending her first three years on patrol and earning Officer of the Year recognition in 2000, Shah worked as a school resource officer (SRO) for about 10 years. During her first stint as an SRO, she served four elementary schools and “absolutely loved it.” After taking time off to give birth to her second daughter, she became the SRO at the high school and “learned to love it.”
“I worked really hard with the administration to figure out how to reach the freshmen and sophomores,” Shah said. “It took some time, but I ended up really enjoying that, too.”
During that time, she helped develop the Student of the Week and Block Watch programs and, even further back, the Ducky Awards. The kids who benefited from the Ducky Awards 20 years ago are now raising their own children, and they all remember Shah’s contributions to their lives and the Toppenish community.
“The generation I police now is the generation I had when I was working in the schools,” Shah said. “I’ve got four generations of people who can say, ‘I remember you.’ That makes me feel really good. Community policing is so important, and I’m glad I got to do it for so many years.”
Shah also earned respect from her neighbors for her work as the TPD’s child forensic interviewer — a role she held for 18 years. She already had built a rapport with the families, so when one of their children needed police support, they knew they could trust Shah.
“I knew all the kids from school and already had relationships with them,” she said. “I think it also helped the families to have a female interview their kids during such a difficult time. I took that responsibility very seriously, and I’m going to miss it.”
Now, Shah is ready to take on a new challenge at the Washington State Gambling Commission, where she will work with non-tribal casinos across Central Washington. She will still be a commissioned law enforcement officer with arresting powers, but her jurisdiction won’t be anything like it was over the past 25 years. Even before her last day at TPD, she knew that reality may take some getting used to.
“I’m a people person and working with people is what drives me,” she said. “I had a good run, but I will always have the amazing relationships I built here. I just want to say ‘thank you’ to everyone in this community.”