SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — Kathy Lester leads a department of more than 1,200 as the first female Sacramento police chief.

Within the first couple of weeks after taking the helm, she handled the mass shooting along K Street downtown, which killed six people and injured a dozen more.

It’s a city that saw 57 homicides last year, with a 30% increase in shootings overall.

“The other things that’s very concerning to me as a police chief, for our community, and for our officers, are the number of guns that we are seeing in the community. So in 2020, we confiscated over 1,200. Last year, we confiscated over 1,600 guns and a lot of those are illegal guns. There’s a significant percentage that are ghost guns, that have never been tracked, and don’t know where they came from,” Lester said.

She said in years past if the guns were traced back to a certain neighborhood, their tactic was flooding the area with cops, having zero tolerance and stopping everyone. 

They arrested people and handed out tickets for minor offenses. Police said it was effective and took criminals off the street.

“But it also caused irreparable harm in those communities,” Lester explained.

The chief said they’ve learned that most violent crime is committed by a small number of individuals from smaller geographic areas of the city. So they’ve focused on known people, who have a violent history, and repeat offenders.

But she said that’s only one part of the equation.

Police captains are assigned as area commanders who work with community leaders that provide feedback to them.

“We can be effective without creating harm and alienating communities, that we really are there to serve. Because ultimately, everyone wants and deserves to live in a safe neighborhood,” Lester said.

The chief said neighborhoods stay safer when organizations can provide better services to those coming out of prison through early release.

She said rehabilitation and effective integration back into communities with support services are key to a successful early release.

“So I think it’s a bigger conversation. How do you prevent people from being incarcerated in the first place, and if you do have an incarceration, how do you better and how do you best prepare them to be successful in their communities?” Lester said.

Lester credits the first two women of the department, Flossie Crump and Felicia Allen, who she said, helped pave the way for her success at the police department.

“It was the generation of women that came before me. Like Flossie and Felicia that really laid the groundwork, made my journey to this position ultimately, like much easier,” Lester said. 

One of her many goals as chief is hiring culturally diverse people. 

“You can get people in the door. But if you don’t have an organization that supports diversity, that values differences and really diversity in thought and background, it’s hard to retain diverse candidates because they don’t maybe feel like they belong. For me, that’s really important,” Lester said.

And it’s important for her as chief to pay it forward, spreading the word that success is attainable through hard work.

Dropping out of high school didn’t define her. She said she went from serving as a linguist in the Army to eventually landing a job as a police dispatcher, which placed her foot at the door.

“I could’ve very easily have ended up on a different path. And so, I’m really grateful. And I also feel a sense of responsibility to try and make sure that I talk about that because I want people to understand there are paths forward. You can make mistakes in your life. But you can still move forward. Heck, you can be the chief of police someday,” Lester said.