Five questions for Melissa Zak

CU-Boulder police chief works at strengthening community ties, stabilizing workforce
5 Questions for Zak

Chief Melissa Zak (Photo: Patrick Campbell/University of Colorado)

Melissa Zak will tell you that being at CU-Boulder will help balance her family, personal and work life in ways that might never have happened had she stayed in Los Angeles. But that wasn’t the only reason she chose after 20 years to leave the LA Police Department, where she was a captain overseeing gang and detective operations. She began to turn her attention to university policing after an incident on the University of Southern California campus.

“I had two college students killed in my division and I really thought that our college students – that age group in general -- are so vulnerable to the evils of the world just by virtue of the uniqueness of their age and lack of life experience,” Zak said. She interviewed at several higher education institutions, including for the position of deputy chief at CU-Boulder. Little did she know that after she was hired by CU, her first crisis would be managing a flood. And after a short five months in that position, she was appointed chief in 2013.

“I didn’t think that coming from a large municipal agency, even with my USC background, that a campus would ever look at me for a chief of police position because I wasn’t battle-tested in a university environment,” Zak said.

She’s been tested in other ways and will use that experience to improve the department she has run for just over a year. Zak firmly believes that policing is all about building relationships and trust within her communities and her decisions reflect that. She has reorganized the CU Police Department, made efforts to connect with the 30,000 students and 7,000 staff and faculty at the university, collaborated with the city’s police department and other entities, and is working to make CU officers “better public safety servants in protecting the people that work and live in and around CU.“

When she’s not serving as chief, you might find her sewing or playing golf – although so far, her free time has been limited – or watching CU’s athletes perform.  She especially loves watching the women’s basketball team.

“Being at CU has been a whirlwind; it’s been very trying, but I would never trade it. I love working at CU.  I respect who we are and who we represent and I enjoy the opportunity and challenge that working in a flagship institution presents.”

1. You’ve been at CU-Boulder for a year and a half. What are the most pressing issues that you deal with and what are some of the programs or policing measures you’ve instituted or plan to put into effect?

The most pressing issue was the flood. I was still deputy chief at the time. You know, I probably didn’t do my homework very well. Who knew Colorado would have weather? Who knew Colorado would have a 100-year flood when I came in? But that was the eye opener for me, and also a focal point in terms of my leadership experience and my ability to demonstrate to campus leadership and the community and the department that I could run a big-phase incident and could work in collaboration with other campus entities. All of that basically allowed us to have no loss of life on campus during that time. By working together and having a set of objectives, we minimized the number of days campus was closed and minimized the damage to campus from the water and resulting debris. It was amazing how the campus community came together during that natural disaster. Everyone was a hero, but the group that really stood out for me was Housing (and Dining Services). My biggest fear was that during the four days the campus was closed, boredom would set in for our student body and we would have to respond to calls for alcohol overdoses or water-related slip and slides involving our students, and that those calls would take away life safety resources from someone else. But Housing did a fabulous job with programming for the students to keep them active, focused and involved and connected with their families who were worried about their well-being.

One of my goals is to make sure our campus police are prepared for any emergency on campus. What people don’t realize is that sometimes officers don’t come home. I had to make many death notifications in California, and I don’t want to have to make any more. When I became the chief at CU, I told the officers that it was my job to make sure they have the best environment to work in and perform in, and the tools, training and support necessary to do their jobs. I take their safety very seriously because I understand the sacrifices they make as well as the sacrifices their families make.

Back in July we reorganized the department and one of the things we created is succession planning in the three branches of the department -- police operations, support services and emergency management.  This is where my city-side connections come into play. In any organization, you want to be training your next leaders. The way the branches were sectioned in the past, the majority of our commissioned personnel were only on one side of the organization. We’ve created a system in all three sections so that an officer can go from patrol into events into investigations or into professional standards so that when it comes time to fill voids in leadership, those employees will be ready to assume those positions.

Later this month or in February we will release our strategic plan for campus, which talks about our service delivery for the campus community, how to set standards and how to define successes. That is part of the next evolution for policing. In the city world, we measured success by response time, clearance rates or reduction in Part I crimes. I don’t know that you can apply the same metrics to a campus police department, but that’s where our work with Associate Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Luftig will be critical in defining what a flagship police department looks like.

We’re also working with the student government tri-executives on a campus safety initiative, and over Thanksgiving break, we removed seven blue emergency phones that were on campus. We exist to make sure our students and faculty and staff are safe. We’re looking at using lighting and a safety app instead of the phones, and we also have a camera initiative that will determine where we place the devices on campus so we have safe pathways for our students who traverse back and forth on the Hill. How the police department contributes to the success of our students is very critical for us. Are there things we could be doing to foster a sense of safety on the campus, can we look at education efforts rather than zero-tolerance on minor criminal violations? How do we partner with our various colleges in identifying impediments to a students successful matriculation? Those are all of the forward-thinking practices a flag-ship institution should be examining.

And we’re partnering with our PanHellenic organizations to reduce sexual assaults. PanHellenic leaders came to me and asked how they could make a difference. What a great opportunity it was for me to listen to their ideas. I have the experience of 23 years in law enforcement but they are the ones who interact day-to-day with their peers and they can sell the message of communicating what “no” means, what role an active bystander can play, and how to drink responsibly.

2. You spent 20 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, overseeing everything from gang operations to policing at the Academy Awards. What would you consider some of the high points and low points of your time in LA?

One of my high points has to be my work with communities. When you first go into law enforcement, you have entry level interviews and you talk about service to the community and how you want to be a stakeholder there. Then when you become an officer, you start to understand that you carry a badge and gun and have a lot of power. You can be coaxed by the sexiness of driving fast and pulling your gun and arresting bad guys and you can forget that your community really relies upon you for their safety. The reality of policing is not the thrill of arresting the bad guy, because that’s the adrenaline talking; it’s the follow-through and the work that you do to make the community better. It’s the partnerships that you build with the community so that the community can protect itself, and set its own standards of acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

When I was working in south central (LA) in an economically depressed area, I saw young men and young women and juveniles who didn’t have a chance at life because mom or dad wasn’t in the picture. They would have to travel through multiple gang territories to get to school and that’s when I knew I could help make a difference in their lives. That’s the rewarding factor: It’s the lives you save and the on-ramps to crime that you stop. Even here in Colorado I meet kids and I see some of those warning signs – parents not in the picture, lack of economic support and substance abuse. Those are the predictors that I know can lead kids down the wrong path. As a leader in law-enforcement, the challenge for me is, how do we as leaders destroy the on-ramp to crime that so many of our youth fall into.

So part of my work in south central was to build trust and make a difference in the community. That was very critical, especially when the LAPD was accused of excessive force, false arrest, and illegal search and seizure. The department had to follow mandates to prove to the community that we didn’t racially profile. But the act of satisfying those mandates isn’t what mattered to the community. It’s the day-to-day interactions with law enforcement that matter. For instance, when I would see the community at an event, or play basketball with the young men or women at a rec center, or go to muffins for mom or donuts for dads. Not only did they see a uniform, but they saw a human being behind a uniform. As law enforcement officers, you have to walk a fine line of staying safe and having a command presence and bearing but you also want the community to understand that we are human and that we have feelings and families. When two students were gunned down at the University of Southern California, we didn’t know who had done it. There were people who intimated that a local gang had killed the two, but I had local gang members calling me, saying, “Capt. Zak, it wasn’t us.” Had I not had that trust and that relationship with that community, they would never have called me. In the end, the local gang had absolutely no connection to those homicides.

One of the low points came when I was working the gang unit. There was a young boy – Danny Boy – who was 7 or 8 at the time, and he would run up to my car and say, “Officer Town (my maiden name), do you have baseball cards today?” He lived in gang-infested territory and didn’t have a chance. Sure enough, 10 years down the road he was murdered. You form relationships in your career, but you can’t save everybody. But you always work hard to prevent the next one.

Other high points were the Academy Awards and seeing that go off successfully. The LA marathon was a great experience, being able to save the city money in terms of law enforcement deployment that was needed and to allow our youth – explorer cadets – to assist our officers. We gave these youth volunteers an opportunity to experience what it is like to be an officer and stand guard on the parade route and to work with the community. It was a great recruitment tool for law enforcement.

3. Was there a person or event that influenced your career decision?

My father was a military man, serving 26 years in the United States Air Force. He was a great influence in my life. I lost my mom at a young age and he taught his three daughters to be self-sufficient and to be career women. He basically taught us we could do anything a man could do and sometimes do it better. There used to be a saying around our house: “God bless the person who attracts a Town girl, because they will have their work cut out for them.” We weren’t cut from the traditional cloth. He used to tease me that he paid all that money for me to attend college and I ended up being a cop. But little did he know that later on in life, after he passed, I would become a chief. I think he would be very proud of the choices I made in my career.

4. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Hopefully, I will still be here at CU. My youngest (of five children) will be 18. If you would have asked me if I would have stayed in LA, could I have worked until I was 65, I would tell you that I don’t think I could have survived. For me, it’s about striking a nice equilibrium between my family, my personal life and work and still gain satisfaction. I believe in 10 years I’ll still be here and the department will be fully staffed.

That’s one of my goals – to be fully staffed. When I first came to CU, people told me that would never happen. We were losing officers to other agencies or different professions. I believe it takes a unique officer to work at CU because of the campus dynamics. I believe they are out there and hopefully, the days of a revolving door at CU are over. The work we are doing with human resources and the business partnership model will help the workforce stabilize so we won’t have the turnover we had before I got here.

5. Do you have an item or artifact in your office that holds special meaning for you?

I attended the FBI’s National Academy. They have four sessions a year and bring in about 270 law enforcement officers every session. It’s very prestigious to be able to go to the NA, and while you are there, you earn what is called a brick -- a yellow brick. The 10-week program includes lots of physical activities. During the last week of the session, you run the Yellow Brick Road, which is 8 miles long and contains different obstacles that you have to go through. It’s sort of similar to what the Marines do at Quantico. After you get back from the NA, everyone asks if you got your brick. It’s almost a walk of shame if you don’t get your yellow brick. Not only do I have my yellow brick, I also have a blue brick that I earned for a 34-mile swim that is done over the course of the session. So I have by yellow brick and my blue brick in my office and they are something I’m very proud of.

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