Captain Nichelle Luster, the Union City Police Department’s newest officer and first female to be promoted to that rank, is used to working in male-dominated fields. Luster, whose tall stature and tough demeanor demand respect upon first meeting, said her gender has never been an issue in her 19 years with the department, if only because she’s worked hard to prove herself as a good cop.
“In this department, I think, people tend to look beyond gender,” she said. “It’s about respect here. I treat my colleagues as I think they want to be treated.”
Luster was the lone officer promoted in a ceremony at the William V. Musto Cultural Center last Friday. Captains rank directly below the chief.
She joined the department in 1994, after serving five years in the United States Army with stints in Germany and Guantanamo Bay. A native of San Diego, she holds a bachelor’s degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University, and is currently working towards a master’s degree in public administration there.
Since joining the department, Luster has seen the female demographic in the department grow substantially. When she was hired, she was one of five female officers on the force. Now, there are 14, with four more currently in the academy.
Asked whether she saw herself as a role model for the department’s younger female officers, Luster replied that she simply tries to lead by example.
“If I am a role model, that’s really flattering,” she said.
“In the future, I’d like to be one of many female captains.” - Captain Nichelle Luster
“I hope they look at what she’s accomplished and say ‘Hey, if she can do it, I can do it,’” he said. “We’d like female promotions to be a trend.”
Tough, but compassionate
“As a woman in law enforcement, I don’t try to be a man in law enforcement,” explained Luster when asked about dealing with the challenges of working in the male-dominated field. “There are assets to being a female cop.”
She explained that male and female officers, while engaging in equally effective methods of communication, interact with suspects and victims differently. In a domestic abuse or sexual assault case especially, Luster said that she thought a female officer might stand a better chance of succeeding in working with a female victim.
“I think a female officer might have an easier time making a breakthrough in a situation like that, but it’s not necessarily because of what the officer is doing,” she said. “It’s more of an issue of a victim’s perception, rather than of an officer’s capabilities.”
Luster said she understood that misconceptions about female cops do exist, but said that she does her best not to let them get in the way of her job.
“Obviously there are cultural differences that can complicate things, but you just have to get the job done,” she said.
Head of detectives
Luster, still a lieutenant at the time, took over for former Chief of Police Brian Barrett as head of the department’s investigative division when he was promoted to the office of top cop at the end of 2011. Holding oversight over the entire detective bureau, including the major crimes unit, the gang suppression unit, the narcotics unit, and the juvenile aid unit, Molinari said that Luster filled the position naturally.
“She one of the hardest working officers we have,” he said. “She adds a personal touch to everything she does.”
Luster said that despite having done the job of a captain while still technically a lieutenant, the experience had the same results.
“I feel prepared, but I’m sure every day is going to be a learning experience,” she said.
Besides overseeing investigations of crimes that have already taken place, Luster explained that she hopes to take the division in a direction where they can prevent crimes as well as solve them.
“We already try to be as proactive as we can, in addition to being reactive,” she said. “One example might be if we’re investigating a burglary, we’d offer the victim and their neighbors a sort of on-site security survey so that they’re safer in the future.”
Honored and humbled
Luster said that since her promotion, she’s had an outpouring of support from current and former colleagues, as well as from her friends and fellow female officers.
“I’m honored,” she said. “I never really thought of myself as a trailblazer, but that seems to be the perception. But in the future, I’d like to be one of many female captains.”
Luster explained that often times, young women or school-aged girls approach her and ask about being a female cop.
“I think it’s great,” she said. “We’re changing the face of policing. You can be tough and compassionate at the same time.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at email@example.com