Former Illinois Police Chief Talks About Lessons in Leadership

Feb. 3, 2023
Officer.com contributor Officer Ramses Coly recently interviewed former Aurora, Illinois, Police Chief Kristen Ziman about her new book Reimagining Blue.
Officer.com contributor Officer Ramses Coly recently interviewed former Aurora, Illinois, Police Chief Kristen Ziman about her new book Reimagining Blue. Last year, Ziman was tapped by the Department of Justice to serve on a task force investigating the police response to the Uvalde, Texas, mass shooting.

You talked about how a random subject in an audience during a lecture gave you the idea to write a book someday. Can you tell me when you started this project, and how long did it take?

Yeah, so I started this project in 2018 and it was shortly after that talk actually; he planted that little seed, and I was sitting in a plane one day, and I outlined the chapters of what I thought could potentially be a book. I started working on it then; well then I was really getting some momentum in writing everyday; 600 words, I forced myself to write every morning. And then the mass shooting happened on February 15, 2019 in my city. I did not write for the rest of 2019. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t write then, but now, looking back, I knew I had to write emotionally about the mass shooting and I wasn’t ready to do that. So, I put it on hold and in 2020 I picked it back up and I just worked on it, plugged along until my retirement in 2021. Then I retired, and I ended up finishing the book within three, four months of retiring. The book is very different than what it started out (as). My publisher and I sat down together and decided that I needed to talk about hard things and add some chapters about race, policing, George Floyd, gun control and all of the hard topics. So I decided not to play it safe and to write a book that was going to touch on some hard things. So that’s how it came to fruition.

You mentioned a couple of books as a reference, books that guided you sometimes in your way of thinking. Bill Bratton, formerly of New York, Los Angeles, and New York again, was one of several individuals who gave you praise at the beginning of Reimagining Blue. Have you read any of his works at all, such as The Profession?

Yes, I own that book and I have read it. Bill Bratton is a legend and he’s got a lot of interesting experience in wisdom about policing. I don’t necessarily agree with everything but I respect most definitely his career and I liked the book, I really did. But I’m more influenced interestingly enough by books that have nothing to do with law enforcement. I liked the Brene Browns of the world, Simon Sinek, Daniel Pink, Adam Grant. I think I learn more from those books than I do from those in law enforcement.

You said you struggled to fit in and/or to belong during your early years in Aurora. Readers of the book will find out how you addressed an incident with a supervisor after you received performance feedback from him. You did change early in your career in order to fit in. But you stopped changing for others... You had enough?

Yes, that’s the answer. I started to really pay attention to the best leaders and I noted that they were authentically themselves; and quite frankly, I got tired of trying to fit in to other people’s template of what I thought I should be. You know, a lot of that of course is stereotypical of women. There was a faction of people that didn’t think women should be in policing. And I decided to stop trying to pound that, round pegging into a square hole, and to just be myself. Once I started doing that, I became a more successful police officer. I wasn’t hiding anymore. That is also a remedial lesson that I’ve had to learn. So I’d figure it out, and then I would do something to try to fit in again. So it’s this failure over and over of repeating the same mistakes. Finally towards the end of my career, sadly, is when I really think I completely got it figured out, during my commander years. But most definitely a lesson that I have to keep revisiting.

You policed during the George Floyd events in the summer of 2020. You talk a lot about those rough times in the book. You said an officer wrote you a ‘thank you note’ leading you to believe your job was done, but I get the sense reading Reimagining Blue that the post-George Floyd era was one of the main reasons you may have resigned from your position as Chief of Police?

So it was a culmination. Number one, I was starting to think about leaving in 2021 actually which is when my youngest was graduating from college. So that was always on my radar. Not only that, but I don’t like it when police chiefs take up a position for too long. And I was coming up on six years when I decided to retire. I’m a big proponent in having fresh eyes, fresh ideas. I think that sometimes leaders, even the best of them, can become stagnant or make an organization stagnant when they stay too long. So to answer your question, it was a culmination. It was the mass shooting in 2019, then trying to figure out how to lead a police department during a pandemic, which took a lot of toll on our officers. And then right after that was George Floyd. So it felt like we were punching bags for three years. Quite frankly, I just decided to wait until there were no more crises. A good leader never leaves in the middle of a crisis. I think I just kind of reflected on my 27-year sworn career and knew in my molecules that it was time to go. So it was a lot of those things that  kind of all melted together.

In the concluding chapter, you wrote: “The only real battle I’ve had as of late is between hanging on and letting go.” Is that why you tried returning to policing by applying to several cities? You weren’t quite ready to retire permanently?

Yes. I actually applied for Chicago (Police Department) and Nashville (Metro Police Department). Those were the two agencies I really, really wanted. I applied to those while I was still the chief. My plan was always to take another chief job. So by retiring from Aurora, I knew I was done with that chapter. I lived in Aurora my whole life, 27 years sworn, 30 years with my police department. I wanted to go to another Police Department, a bigger Police Department. So that was always a personal goal of mine. Honestly, it was always in the books for me. It was what I always thought I would do. Then – life is funny –, I started in my retirement, finished the book; speaking engagements started to come up. But I never intended to apply for another police department once my speaking engagements started to pick up. But then Fort Lauderdale (Police Department) just showed up right in my backyard as I moved to Naples. It was enticing to me. That was just kind of a fluke: I didn’t really want the job, or need it. But it was like ‘you know what, let’s see if, you know, if maybe I’m not done with policing.’ So that is why I put in for it. But Nashville and Chicago were just always on my greater horizons. 

For the Fort Lauderdale Police Chief position, you explained how you had to withdraw your application, due to someone from City Hall telling you to "tone it down" or something to that effect. Consequently, you didn't think you'd be a good fit in that city. You specifically said that if someone like Chief Acevedo, whom you suggest can be loud, had done the same thing, he wouldn't be told to tone it down. Ironically, do you think that's exactly what happened to him with his stint in Miami, that he was too vocal against city leaders?

So here’s what’s interesting. My book was done and was already at the publisher when Art Acevedo was pushed out of Miami. So, I was able to get a quick edit-in in the book to say that it was one of his departments that he worked for, but I didn’t have an opportunity to really talk about what happened with him in Miami. But inconsequential for me, I don’t know… I think there’s a lot more to what happened to him with his stint in Miami. He’s a very vocal, passionate, emotional guy. I know that he’s well regarded and even since Miami, post-Miami, he’s been the Interim Chief in (Aurora) Colorado. So even that didn’t harm him. The guy could have a Police Chief job if he wanted. I was trying to make the comparison… he’s a boisterous kind of guy and no one ever chastised him for that whereas for me I’ve always been told, I’m too much and to tone it down. So I stand by that statement.

You talk about how female law enforcement leaders would save seats for other fellow female “sisters” at conferences. You briefly mention how Carmen Best, then Seattle Police Chief, once had your back. You seem to encourage “solidarity” among women, recounting how you were betrayed by some of them, even potentially affecting a top position in Chicago. How do you balance “solidarity” among women but making sure qualified candidates are actually chosen?

So the answer to that is the cream rises to the top. I’m less about solidarity. What I mean by that is, I’m not going to put a person in a position because they are a friend or even a female. But what I will do is make sure that I’m paying attention to those who are performing. And when I see someone who shows leadership qualities, I might try and get them to pursue other challenges in the department or in the organization. For example, you have to be deliberate. There are people who are purposefully left out of, away from the table because they do not fit that template. We often promote in our own image. So we have to be deliberate; when we see leadership qualities in people, we have to make sure we tap them on the shoulder and say ‘hey you should put in for this position,’ and I have done that many times. We can call that maybe ‘solidarity’ I’m not so sure that’s the word that I would use. But for me, it’s about giving people opportunities, to people who may never have had an opportunity because we’ve always lived in that good old boys club. So I just like to find talent and that talent, to me, I don’t care if you’re short, tall, whatever it may be, what the color of your skin is, who you pray to, who you love, I don’t care about any of that. What I care is, you know, what do you bring to the organization.

Do you think, from all the statements you've made in this book, that police chiefs in major and mid-size citi es have the same challenges as small-town chiefs, including sheriffs in rural counties?

I’d say they’re scalable. But it’s the same problems, right? I mean police chiefs, you know, we answer to a mayor or to a city council, or to a city manager. And whether you run a 10-person police department or a 10000-person police department, you have to navigate the politics and that can often be the most difficult thing. I watched a lot of police chiefs get fired in the post George (Floyd) era because they were made to be scapegoats for weak, elected officials. So in that regard, I’d say still a lot of the same challenges. I’d even say some of the smaller rural communities or small town chiefs have even greater challenges for resources. They may not have budgets that are that big. Let’s take Uvalde, for example, where we just had the biggest massacre; and they’re a small town. Not a lot of resources whereas your big cities have the resources to provide people with the skills and the tools that they need. I think, though, the challenges are different and they really depend on the culture of the community and the personality of the communities. It’s different yet the same. Very political answer I suppose.

A lot has been said about the danger of workplace romances. But in the first responder world, sometimes it’s hard to avoid. You have a chapter about your ex-husband who worked for the same department you were at. You also have a chapter about your current wife, who retired with you from Aurora. Were there serious challenges working with these two individuals, especially when you became Chief of Police, de facto their boss?

Yes, absolutely. I would be absolutely lying if I’d said there weren’t. I think more so interestingly enough as I’ve never wanted to give the appearance of favoritism. So I often would err on the side of caution, almost too much so. I’d use my wife for example: I’d recuse myself from anything she was involved in when I knew what a great officer she was. I mean, she worked child sex crimes for 8 years. But I didn’t tout her talent because I was afraid people might think that it was because of my relationship to her when in truth if that were another police officer, I’d have given all the accolades in the world. So I was probably more silent in praise and that was pretty unfair to her I think. But actually we have a big department, so she worked on a task force for much of the time I was in the rank. So she worked off site. It really didn’t present that many challenges. My ex-husband and I are great friends. So there’s been absolutely no drama, no animosity. And he’s pursued the things he wanted to in the Police Department. I can’t say that there has been any issues with either of them. Maybe the issues have been perceived, or maybe I even created them as bigger than they actually were, which is interesting. But I will tell you, if I could do it all over, because I did have a lot of stress around, you know, I don’t want to advocate for anyone who is close to me for the appearance or the optics; so I think if I had to do it over again, of course, I would pick the same people to be married to (laughing) but I would not have them in my police department at all. Just for the sake of that stress that I think I put on myself.

You’ve attended IACP conferences, and you’ve met a lot of leaders during your law enforcement journey. Can you tell me who your favorite Chief of Police is (active or retired), and specifically who your favorite female Chief of Police is (active or retired)? This can also include Sheriffs and state police leaders by the way.

That’s a tough one because there are so many amazing individuals that I’ve had the great pleasure of working with. One of the ones, I mention him in my book, that I just revere is Terry Cunningham, former chief in Massachusetts. He’s now employed by the IACP. I love and adore him, respect him immensely. Steven Casstevens from a small city in Illinois. Nomarch who made my book for his quote where he said, “I have found the enemy and he is us,” referring to police officers who can’t get out of their own way. I could go on and on for so long (laughing) with chiefs that are my favorites. Silvia Moir who endorsed my book is my favorite female police chief. She’s been the most open and accessible chief before I was a chief, the kindest woman I’ve ever met. So, she hands down is my favorite female police chief.

What would be your least favorite police leader? I know you have one. Someone like former Sheriff Joe Arpaio… or Sheriff Lamb…

Oh yeah - Joe Arpaio… I don’t particularly care for those kind of police officers. You know they poised themselves politically. They also show no compassion for their constituents and their communities. I have no use for that kind of autocratic leadership. Sadly, there’s a long list of leaders that I don’t care for, that I look at and think I would never do anything to emulate them. So they actually teach me great leadership lessons on what not to do.

Leaders don’t always reveal their plans. But I’ll ask anyways: will you continue to try to become Chief elsewhere or are you definitely retired and done from sworn law enforcement?

You know what, I’m not sure. I will never say ‘never.’ Right now, I’m saying ‘never’ because my speaking and the book sales have been remarkable. I’m booking up for 2023 and I love speaking. I would like to do more consulting for organizations regarding leadership coming in, maybe taking a look at culture. But for the first time in my life, this is an unknown. I’m usually a person who jumps within that. For the first time ever, I’m free falling and kind of enjoying the opportunities as they come. I’m really enjoying being on the DOJ team doing the Uvalde review. I’m enjoying speaking, I’m enjoying the consulting jobs that I have right now. So I’m kind of in a ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ place in my life. But if an opportunity presented itself somewhere, and it was a good fit, I’m not one to say ‘no, I’ll never do that.’ I’m kind of excited about the unknown.

About the Author

Ramses Coly has been a police officer with the Hagerstown Community College Police Department in Maryland since May 2022. Prior to that assignment, Officer Coly was a deputy sheriff with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in the same state, from 2019 until 2022. Officer Coly studied at Shepherd University in West Virginia, and obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Mass Communications. He founded the website blueredmedia.net where he reviews public safety-related books as well as blogs about law enforcement. He can be reached at [email protected]. More of his work can be found at https://www.blueredmedia.net/

About the Author

Ramses Coly

Ramses Coly has been a police officer with the Hagerstown Community College Police Department in Maryland since May 2022. Prior to that assignment, Officer Coly was a deputy sheriff with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in the same state, from 2019 until 2022. Officer Coly studied at Shepherd University in West Virginia, and obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Mass Communications. He founded the website blueredmedia.net where he reviews public safety-related books as well as blogs about law enforcement. He can be reached at [email protected].

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