Sacramento Police Chief Kathy Lester starts her day at 5 a.m. and makes sure she checks in with her staff throughout the day and night if necessary. (Photo by Wes Davis)

The Way We Work: Sacramento Police Chief Kathy Lester

A glimpse into the daily life of Sacramento’s first female police chief

Back Article Oct 17, 2023 By Jeff Wilser

This story is part of our October 2023 print issue. To subscribe, click here.

It’s a job just like any other job, except with responsibility for the safety of an entire city. No pressure. When Kathy Lester was sworn in as chief of the Sacramento Police Department in December 2021, she joined a new executive team with fresh eyes, and they surveyed the many challenges. “We saw that our biggest issue was violence in the community and the perception of safety, and that had to be our No. 1 priority,” says Lester. “That was the entire department’s focus and our goal.”

The first job is to save lives. But Lester is also responsible for managing a 24/7 operation with 1,000 employees that includes 700 officers, a downtown core unit, task forces, a communication center, a marine unit and more. Lester joined the force in 1994 as a dispatcher, and after nearly three decades of experience, she says, “One of the neatest things about being a leader is that you have the opportunity to redirect the ship.”

5:00AM – (at the latest) Wakes up, pours a cup of coffee, catches up on everything that happened overnight. There’s always something — maybe it’s a hit-and-run, a homicide, or a shooting at a “sideshow” (illegal car stunt parties that have plagued the region). Gives direction to the team; briefs elected officials if necessary. 

5:50AM – Sits outside sipping coffee with her husband, Keith Hughes, a former police officer, to spend at least a few minutes of quality time. This is a daily ritual. “That might be the only time I get to see him. We just try and have a little peaceful coffee moment early in the day.” The couple have three grown children.

6:15AM – Hops on the Peloton. “I need at least 30 minutes of a good sweat. It helps you think. It helps reduce your stress.” 

6:50AM - In the background, she keeps the local news on the TV while getting ready. “I watch all the local media outlets. Lots of times they’ll cover the same story in a different way.” A police chief needs to be a news junkie — she devours Twitter alerts — as any breaking story could demand the SPD’s attention. 

7:30AM – Drives to the station. Makes quick check-in calls along the way. 

8:05AM – Arrives at work, second cup of coffee in hand, and touches base with the assistant city manager. Wanders the halls to take the pulse and provide guidance.

9:00AM – Team meeting with her staff, covering topics that range from the department’s strategic plan to promotional testing to a new military equipment use policy.

10:30AM – Command level meeting. Her strategy for meetings: “I always solicit everyone’s opinion in the room,” as this “creates that culture where it’s okay to question the leadership, and it’s okay to bring in different opinions. That’s healthy.”

12:30PM – While eating a quick lunch in the break room, she helps with any follow-ups or one-on-one conversations from the last meeting. 

1:00PM – Meets with community members or business professionals, catching up on events or community outreach. Lester knows the SPD has a complex history with the community, especially in questions of race. She always focuses on service. “There’s a complicated relationship between law enforcement and communities of color,” she says. “We have a lot of rebuilding to do. If you don’t look at yourself as service providers, you’re never going to get past where we were.”

2:00PM – Roams the halls and conducts “management by walking around,” checking in with the larger team. She sprinkles in questions like “How are you doing, how’s your family?” throughout the day, as “I think everyone wants to know their boss cares about them.” 

3:00PM – Preps for the city council meeting, gathering materials and data. She might give some public remarks before the meeting, such as discussing the new Violent Crime Reduction Plan.

5:00PM – City Council meeting, which can sometimes stretch until 10 p.m.

6:00PM – She’ll attend a community event or work function multiple times a week — like when she recently rode undercover with officers to better understand the city’s sideshow problem. 

7:00PM – Dinner can happen at odd hours or not at all. “One of the things that saved my marriage was Hello Fresh,” she says with a laugh. “He’ll make that, and I try to pre-plan.”

8:00PM – More work, whether knocking out her 200 daily emails or finally getting to deeper-focus tasks. “My best work gets done in the evenings after I’m done with events.”

10:00PM – Throws some water on the tomatoes in her garden. “I love working with my hands. I’m constantly building stuff.” 

10:30PM – More catch-up time with her husband. “God bless him. Without him I wouldn’t have clean socks right now.” 

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