Melissa Zak, the University of Colorado Police Department’s new Chief of Police, is the first woman in the role and has a tremendous responsibility when it comes to managing a student population of 30,000.
Zak graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 1992 with the aspirations of going to law school. Deciding she wanted more real world experience, she joined the Los Angeles Police Department. After realizing she loved the streets and field too much, she stayed. She now has 25 years in the force under her belt.
Read more to learn Zak’s experiences in situations of discrimination, student mental health and the issue of sexual assault on college campuses:
Hanna: What made you look to Boulder after working for LAPD for so long?
Zak: I made captain [at LAPD] and I went to work in a division that housed USC. Then I had the death of two Chinese students, international students, who were killed in the city streets but were still USC students. Being intimately familiar with the crime on USC campus I said, “Wow — there’s really a problem with people recognizing how fragile and inexperienced our college students are, and they’re taking tremendous advantage of them.”
H: What were your other biggest anticipations or worries when you started managing a campus of 30,000 students?
Z: I think that in L.A. we were very well resourced to work with our mental health populations. In Colorado, we’re resourced heavily in higher ed, but in terms of our city partners and our city services, county services and state services, there isn’t that same level of access for people with mental health issues. I think that mental health issues are probably one of the hardest things because I am a parent, I see the excitement when the parents drop their kids off for their first year of school — and then as the student gets into the academic cadence, things just start to unravel.
H: Is your department trying to be proactive and lead any different initiatives behind that issue?
Z: We partner with student affairs and Wardenburg and all the other partners on the Students of Concern Team. There’s a variety of ways the students can get help. [But] when you look at talking about something that people don’t want to talk about or acknowledge, you don’t generally want to put a uniform in front of it — you want to use other channels to message. You never want to criminalize mental health, because it’s an illness, not a crime. That’s why we always try to look for other ways to put our other partners in the forefront of mental health issues.
H: Switching gears a little bit — how do you feel about the fact that you’re the first woman in this role? Do you think it’s limiting or you’re treated in any different way?
Z: I think as the first female chief I’ve set a good standard which to live by, at least most of the time, and think it’s an opportunity for other people who aspire to be Chief of Police to say, “I too can be in this role.” What I do find interesting, is as a mother and as a chief, people look at me differently, versus if I was a man being a father and a chief. I mean, people walk up to me and say, “Oh my gosh, you have all these kids, how do you do it?’” and I pause, and my internal dialogue goes off: ‘”Well, how does a male with this many kids do it?” and why aren’t you asking a male this question?
H: Have you directly faced any gender discrimination in L.A. or in Boulder?
Z: I will tell you a moment in time in L.A. where I did feel some discrimination and some harassment. I was going in for a civil service interview, and when you go into a civil service interview … you’re in business attire versus in a uniform. When I wore business attire, I wore a skirt. And it was a very below-the-knee kind of skirt, wasn’t above the knee; it shouldn’t have made that big of a difference anyway. I walked into the Watch Commander’s office, which was where the eye of the patrol division was, and one of my sergeants, at the time he was a peer of mine, he looked me up and down — leered — and said, “You really have nice legs.” And that was the last time I wore a skirt in the LAPD environment. People shouldn’t judge me on the basis of my looks, they should judge me on the basis of my performance.
H: I want to talk about the topic of sexual assault on college campuses. One in four women experience sexual assault on college campuses. How do you and your department respond to that?
Z: When we started looking at our reports of sexual assault, we started with how many reports are we getting, how are we looking at it from a prosecution end — from a person coming in and reporting a sexual assault, to the follow through to a conviction or a presentation to the DA’s office. One of the things that we looked at is we talked about our investigative strategies, our work with our survivors, as well as our work with the DA’s office. I said, “There are some things we need to do to get better at how we service our survivor population — our reports, the quality of reports, our DA’s office, and building the trust within the CU community that they can trust law enforcement, and that we will take a case all the way from report to the presentation to the DA’s office.’” The days are gone where you say to a victim or a witness, “Just the facts, ma’ am.” There’s just no way you’re going to develop a rapport with a survivor or a respondent to get them to reveal all the information to you, and when you say, “Just the facts, sir or ma’am,” you completely shut down that interview or investigation.
Contact CU Independent News Staff Writer Hanna Whirty at firstname.lastname@example.org.