Kathy Lester can’t forget the girl with the scar on her forehead.
Lester was working a graveyard shift in the late 1990s when she was called to keep an eye on the young girl after her parents were arrested for fighting in a domestic dispute. While they waited for Child Protective Services to arrive, Lester bought the girl a cheeseburger at McDonald’s and let her sit on her lap in the patrol car. The child, with a unique and pronounced scar, was chatty and unconcerned, but even as a young officer, Lester understood how bad the situation was. She knew the child was at risk.
Five years later, Lester responded to call to break up a fight and arrived to find the girl with the scar involved.
“She didn’t remember me, but I remembered her,” said Lester in a recent interview with The Bee. “She was street-hardened and had some drug use problems. ... That stuck with me about how sad that was. How does that happen? That’s something we have to change.”
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In September, Lester, 44, was promoted to deputy chief in the Sacramento Police Department. That experience with the scarred young girl 20 years ago informs how Lester approaches her new job. She says incorporating social services with police work is critical to helping people long before there are criminal problems.
Lester is part of a new guard of leadership under Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn, charged with building a force trusted by diverse communities after a series of high-profile fatal shootings of African American men in recent years.
“I’ve always tried to go after things and challenge myself,” Lester said. “Twenty-five years ago, I never would have seen myself sitting here. ... I went after it and I hope that I can work for the furtherance of the greater good, that’s the whole point, right? That’s the goal.”
Lester is in a rare position for a woman to affect that change in the Sacramento police force. She is only the second woman to hold the rank of deputy chief. About 16 percent — 103 women — of the 652 sworn officers in the department are female, according to personnel data from the department. It’s a percentage that hasn’t changed much over the years, despite women being 51 percent of the population in Sacramento County.
Despite the low percentage of women on the force, especially in leadership positions, she’s says gender hasn’t been a factor in her career.
“I think maybe from an outsider’s point of view, you would expect there to be a lot of challenges like that for women in particular, and I think I see it a little bit differently,” Lester said. “I’ve certainly had more help here, and most of my mentors have been guys that saw something in me that I probably didn’t see, and helped me kind of see that and realize it, and get me to the next level.”
Lester now oversees 150 people in her division, including units such as SWAT, K9, homeland security, Regional Transit and personnel services.
She follows in the footsteps of other women whom she credits with paving the way for her such as Dana Matthes-Jensen, the first woman promoted to deputy chief in 2012, and Flossie Crump and Felicia Allen, the first two women sworn into the Sacramento Police Department.
“Historically, men get cranky when you see women move into a position of leadership and you just don’t do that with Kathy,” said Matt Powers, and retired deputy chief and Lester’s former colleague. “If the department wants to be transparent, you have to have people who listen. ... and I think Kathy has exactly the right kind of temperament and attitude toward the public that will reinforce that.”
“She’s a cool lady,” he added.
Lester dropped out of high school at 17 years old and joined the Army, where she became fluent in Russian and worked as a cryptanalyst, deciphering foreign communications. After she completed active duty, she worked a few odd jobs before seeing an advertisement for police dispatchers.
She joined the department in 1993 as a dispatcher.
“I had done radio work in the military so I thought, ‘Oh, I could do that,’” she said. “And it was $12 an hour with benefits so I thought, ‘You know what, I’ll give that a shot and get my foot in the door.’”
Three years later, at 21 years old, Lester became a patrol officer.
In 1998, Lester’s patrol car was fired upon while she was trying to make a traffic stop, according to an article in The Bee. She pursued the suspects and when they ditched their car, she followed and arrested one of them.
When she was promoted to a lieutenant in 2010, Lester was put in charge of police services for the Sacramento Unified School District, and “changing those outcomes for kids” became a goal for her, she said. She won Safe Walk to School grants, a program that create routes to encourage kids to walk or bike to school. She also grew the youth diversion program, which offers activities outside of school to help kids.
“It’s important, I think, for the department to really recognize themes throughout our society, and to figure out what we can do and who we can work with to really change outcomes for people, right?” she said. “I don’t think we’re ever going to get to a point when there’s not punitive action for the deed that people do. ... But I think creating opportunities for everyone in our community will be hugely helpful in the future, and those are things that are hard to measure. ... So I think it’s going to be a long time coming, but just because it’s not something that is easy to measure makes it any less important.”
Hahn, who took the helm of the department last year, worked with Lester while he was North Command captain in Del Paso Heights. He said Lester was up against other qualified candidates for the promotion to deputy chief, but he thought that in a tense time for law enforcement, her work ethic and skill set would help the department improve relations with the community.
“(W)e’re in a time where there’s a lot of things changing and we need to be able to bring our department along with those changes and build trust in the community, and I believe she can help us do that,” Hahn said.
But with racial tensions high in the city, Hahn is making all of his promotions take extra steps. One of Lester’s challenges for the promotion was reading the book “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” by Joy DeGruy. The book addresses the impacts of slavery and the “multi-generational trauma” on African-Americans. Lester said the book really resonated with her and reinforced her goal to improve conditions for people by building relationships with them.
“A lot of the challenges lie in the root causes and we are so used to dealing with the symptoms,” she said. “There is a real interest (in law enforcement) in identifying those root causes and how do we change them.”
Lester was also a single mom for 10 years while pursuing her career, but makes parenting a priority.
When her son was in fourth grade, he told her he wanted to see all the California Missions, so she took a week off and traveled across the state, seeing three sites a day so they had the chance to see all of them, she said.
Her son is now 13 years old and they share a love for fly-fishing and the outdoors, she said sitting in her office, which is decorated with family photos, books about fly fishing and a large, wooden American flag with a blue line running through the middle — a symbol of law enforcement solidarity.
She’s rebuilt a camping trailer, won the 911 cooking competition at the State Fair, and likes to work on her old U.S. Forest Service cabin in the mountains, she said.
“She’s a hoot,” Matthes-Jensen said. “She likes to have fun. She makes work fun.”
“I know I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t have a really supportive family,” Lester said, also giving credit to her husband, Keith, a patrol officer in the department.
Lester said she isn’t planning to retire any time soon and is excited for the opportunities in her new leadership role.
“I’m actually excited about where the department can go and I really try and maintain a positive attitude about things and not get mired down in everything that’s negative, because I don’t think we can make moves in the right direction if we’re not thinking about positive change and positive outcomes,” she said.
Molly Sullivan: 916-321-1176, @SullivanMollyM