Groundbreaking police chief learned crucial skills at Sacramento State
March 29, 2022
Kathy Lester ’00 (Government: International Relations) began classes at Sacramento State in 1988, at the age of 14, as part of an accelerated college entrance program that allowed her to take courses while still in high school.
For more than two years, she rode light rail from her family’s Rancho Cordova home to Sac State. By the start of her senior year at Cordova High, she had earned a decent number of college credits.
Then, Lester said, she simply got bored with high school.
“I ended up getting kicked out, so I dropped out of high school. … At the same time, because I wasn’t a high school student in good standing anymore, they had to let me go from the program at Sac State,” she said.
Lester joined the United States Army in 1991, serving two years of active duty followed by eight years as an active and then inactive reserve. She eventually returned to Sacramento, making moves that led her to become, in December 2021, the first woman police chief in Sacramento history.
One of those moves, in 1994, was joining the Sacramento Police Department as a dispatcher, followed in 1997 by a return to Sac State. She credits the University for helping prepare her for a history-making law enforcement career.
“My calling is not so much to just run the organization as status quo, but to look for new and innovative ways to do things,” she said. “The critical thinking skills that I was able to get from Sac State have helped me tremendously and have given me the ability to not only identify but to implement and measure a lot of programs I think that really impacted our community in a positive way.”
When Lester returned to Sacramento, she initially worked at a telecommunications company before becoming a police dispatcher. It paid twice what she had been making, but Lester eventually grew restless behind a dispatcher’s desk.
Moving on, she served as a community service officer, then enrolled in the Sacramento Police Academy and became a sworn officer. About the same time, she re-enrolled at Sac State as a Government and International Relations major, a field she initially learned about while working as a Russian translator in the Army.
“I loved the Government program because of the connection to the (state) Capitol, and the classes were really, really interesting,” she said. “One of the things that I really liked was the one-on-one time that we had with the professors. You had a group of professors that really catered to the needs of the students.”
Lester said at Sac State she learned important skills such writing well and analyzing complex issues, especially relating to government. She also furthered her interest in government and international relations as part of the University’s Model United Nations team.
“My calling is not so much to just run the organization as status quo, but to look for new and innovative ways to do things. The critical thinking skills that I was able to get from Sac State have helped me tremendously and have given me the ability to not only identify but to implement and measure a lot of programs I think that really impacted our community in a positive way.” - Kathy Lester, Sacramento chief of police
The break between high school and college made Lester a “more mature student,” and she appreciated how Sac State welcomed and supported a diversity of scholars, including working adults like herself.
“You are going to get out of Sac State what you put in, and I got a great degree from Sac State,” she said. “It was, honestly, quite affordable, but the quality of education that I got was hands down the best.”
All the while, Lester continued her police work, spending days at Sac State and nights working the graveyard patrol shift.
She rose through the police ranks, her work ranging from patrol to recruiting to criminal intelligence. She oversaw police services at the Sacramento City Unified School District, and led multiple divisions, including Downtown Command, and Outreach and Engagement. In addition to her undergraduate degree, she holds a master’s in Geosciences from Mississippi State University.
On Dec. 31, 2021, in City Council chambers and in front of family, Lester was officially sworn in as Sacramento’s chief of police, the ceremony kept small to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines. She succeeded fellow Sac State alum Daniel Hahn ’95 (Marketing), who had become the city’s first Black police chief in 2017 and retired at the end of 2021.
With safety restrictions relaxed, a larger swearing-in ceremony was held March 17 at the Golden 1 Center. A day later, Lester returned to Sac State to speak to students in the Law Enforcement Candidate Scholars (LECS) program. She shared challenges her department faces, as well as her goals, one of which is to increase the number of women police officers to 30% of Sacramento’s force by 2030.
She also offered career advice. Of the LECS program, Lester said, “We brag about you all the time.
“We’re looking for good people, and if you’ve gone through this program, I know you have the right mindset.”
Lester said she learned to appreciate Sacramento for the opportunities it has provided her and the sense of community it has developed. Sac State, she added, is an important piece of that community.
“Sac State really got me on a new course. I’m so appreciative of the fact that I could participate in the (accelerated) program as a youngster,” Lester said. “I could have gone anywhere, and I’m so glad I came back here and completed my degree at Sac State.”