TONASKET – Jim Rice figures he didn’t draw his gun with an intent to shoot more than half a dozen times in his 24 years as a Tonasket police officer. But those moments, while rare, certainly left a lasting impression.
Rice, who (mostly) retired in June after nearly a quarter century patrolling the city, definitely remembers the closest he came to actually firing a shot.
“I got called to a fight at the Villa Fair parking lot,” he recalled. “A guy was digging in his trunk of his car. He was probably 100 feet from me. He pulled out a Bowie knife. I was standing in front of a crowd of people and I had my gun drawn. I kept telling him to drop the knife, and he just kept coming. He was getting into my comfort zone. I was carrying a … .357 … I was starting to squeeze the trigger and he dropped the knife.
“The only reason I didn’t shoot him is that he wasn’t looking at me. He was coming at me but he was looking at the guy behind me in the crowd that he was going after.”
It wasn’t until later that the adrenaline really kicked in.
“Oh boy,” he said. “After it was over with I was sitting in my car and I couldn’t even write in my notebook. But it feels good after it’s over with and you know you’ve made a difference.”
And that, in short, was how Rice approached his job. He wanted to make a difference to those who weren’t in a position to take care of themselves, for whatever reason.
“Being on the front lines when people are hurt and they need help,” he said. “I like to be able to help somebody and make a difference in their life.”
That included verbal disputes and domestic calls he said – the things that happen frequently when you’re a cop, but aren’t necessarily common in every household.
“Those people get in a situation, they’re scared because they’re not in that all the time,” Rice said. “It makes me feel good when you help somebody out and they thank you for it. You don’t get many thanks in law enforcement. But when you do, it really means something.
“Tonasket has been very good to me,” he added. “The people here have really, really been good.”
Rice was not Tonasket born-and-raised. Originally hailing from Lodi, Calif., he spent some of his early years in Tonasket before moving on to Wenatchee, then settled in Brewster for a time.
“I married Lois and worked on a cattle ranch there,” he said. “Then I got a job up here working with Pacific Calcium in their lime plant. At that time I was a reserve with the Sheriff’s office.”
While pulling that double duty, he said he was asked by then-chief Don Snyder to fill in in Tonasket. In 1987 Rice passed the test to become a full-time officer, then attended the Spokane police academy in 1990.
“I’ve been here ever since,” he said.
Rice said he appreciated how different law enforcement is in a small town as opposed to an urban area like Spokane or Seattle.
“If you arrest somebody in Tonasket today, tomorrow you might be sitting in the restaurant right next to them,” he said. “If you treat people with dignity, even though you’re arresting them and taking their freedom away from them, they’ll respect you for it. A lot of times I’ve arrested people for domestic violence and instead of slam-dunking them in their house and throwing them on the floor, I say, ‘Listen, you’re going to jail. But I’m not going to cuff you up in front of your kids. But I am going to cuff you up after I put you in the car. So let’s just walk out.’ I’ve never had a problem with that.
“You have to earn the respect of the people you work for, and the people who come into town. In Seattle you might not ever see them again. It makes a big difference.”
Rice said that one of the most satisfying parts of the jobs has been to help out the kids of Tonasket – whether it be pulling over newly-licensed drivers to send a message that might later prevent an accident, or setting up first-responder drills to prepare school staff and other first responders for something as unthinkable as a school shooting.
“It means a lot to me to be able to help the kids,” he said. “Every eyar, after driver’s ed is over, I pull over a lot of kids. All of them, they have to test the waters. I talk to all of them.
I’ve had a lot of kids come back to me to thank me either for giving me a break or stopping them from doing something stupid. One thank you in six months makes it all worth it.”
One doesn’t just walk away from a job of 24 years in a town the size of Tonasket. Rice was treated to three events honoring his retirement – a private surprise party, a public retirement party, and a public recognition by the Tonasket City Council.
“I still get people coming up to me asking when I’m coming to work,” he said. “You can’t just quit and retire. You have to ease out of it.”
He also continues to serve in a reserve capacity, as well as continuing to volunteer with the Tonasket Fire Department. And he’ll continue to live in the house by the airport, keeping an eye out to make sure would-be drag racers don’t end up on the runway. Lois also continues to man the Aeneas Lookout firewatch tower for as many as five days in a stretch during the fire season.
But there will also be more time for fishing, taking care of Lois’ “honey-do” list, and visiting out of state. But as long as he’s around Tonasket, he’ll be viewed as the city’s longest-serving officer.
“I loved the job, and I loved the people around Tonasket,” he said. “They’ve been really good to me, and I’ve tried to be good to them.”