When Kara Riley was 16, she was stopped by a Tucson police officer for speeding. It was her “aha” moment, and inspired her to learn the ins and outs of law enforcement.
Fast forward 35 years, and she’s now in charge of her own police department.
Riley, 51, was appointed as the new chief of the Oro Valley Police Department after a unanimous town council vote on Wednesday, Feb. 5. Her employment as police chief is effective Feb. 22. Her two-year contract is for $157,000 a year.
While she’s the department’s first female police chief, she likes to tell people, “I’m a leader that just happens to be a woman, that’s all.” But she didn’t underscore the significance.
“I will say that I am a mother to an 18-year-old and I was able to show her and her friends that anything is possible and that would be true for anybody both male and female,” Riley said. “I stay focused on the leadership more than being a woman.”
At the council meeting, council members, Vice Mayor Melanie Barrett, and Mayor Joe Winfield praised Riley and her accomplishments.
“The right decision got made, without question,” said Councilman Bill Rodman. “When you sat down for the first day of interviews and started talking, I thought ‘Oh my gosh, there she is.’ By the first part of the second day I knew I was looking at a police chief.”
“Commander Riley, I am so grateful for your faithful and dedicated service,” Winfield said. “You clearly worked hard and prepared for this moment and we are a thankful community.”
Before Riley got her start in law enforcement, she grew up in Saudi Arabia, eventually moving to Abu Dhabi, Taiwan and Sudan, Africa. She was following her dad, a University of Arizona professor, who taught underdeveloped countries how to grow food using natural resources. At 16, she came back to the United States, where she had left when she was 6 months old.
She was determined to be a police officer but couldn’t apply until she was 21. So she started out in the corrections field, working for five years in the adult jail and juvenile court, while getting a sociology degree from the UA.
In 1992, she got a job at the Tucson Airport Authority as a police officer, working her way up to sergeant. She became a mother in 2002 to daughter Cecelia, which made things hard in finding a balance. Her priorities as a mother were complicated by airport police shift changes as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, so Riley looked into coming to Oro Valley and started in the patrol department in 2004.
Since then, Riley has worked as a lieutenant, executive officer and as the public information officer. In 2017, Riley was promoted to commander. She ran the support services, overseeing criminal investigations, community resources, public safety telecommunicators, fleet, IT, the records unit, and task force officers. A year later she was transferred back to field services, where she’s been in charge of patrol, motor units, K-9, SWAT, hostage negotiations and the Community Action Team.
“That’s where my heart lies, with the line level officers working hard for this community,” Riley said.
Riley describes being chosen as the new police chief as “humbling and still a little shocking.”
“To be able to say that you’re going to be able to lead the finest men and women in the law enforcement profession, which I believe is here in Oro Valley, is truly an honor,” Riley said.
When it comes to taking over for retiring police Chief Daniel Sharp, Riley likes to call what she is going to do “continuous improvement.”
“I’m grateful because I am able to have worked 16 years under Sharp and have watched and learned, but I also tell people that you’re not going to get what I call ditto or a cookie-cutter because I am my own leader,” Riley said.
“It’s just different in that sense, but we will stay focused on community engagement because that is our priority and ensuring that the community can always call us.”
After finding out that a significant portion of the crimes the department investigates are done on the internet or using other technology, Riley wants to focus on improving the way those crimes are investigated.
“Technology is really pushing us in a direction that I would’ve never known about,” Riley said. “When I started in this industry if you would have told me the internet and social media would be how we combat crime I would’ve said there’s no way.”
The Oro Valley police chief search caused some controversy when it was announced the town would open the search up to external candidates as well. Riley wasn’t surprised to hear about the national search, but said she was focused on going through the hiring process for the chief’s position.
“The two things I focused on was my love for this community and the fact that I have been able to stand shoulder to shoulder with these fine men and women for 16 years,” Riley said.
“I didn’t get involved in anything because it’s not my job as a police officer to get involved in that. It’s my job to serve this community and to serve the men and women of this agency and that’s it.”
Jamie Donnelly is a University of Arizona student who is currently an apprentice for the Arizona Daily Star.
Sign up for our Crime & Courts newsletter
Get the latest in local public safety news with this weekly email.