Taking charge of a police department with more than 100 officers is no easy feat even during a good year.
But Oro Valley Police Chief Kara Riley’s first year on the job included a pandemic, nationwide protests, natural disasters and shifting regulations. In the law enforcement profession for nearly 30 years, Riley says 2020 turned out to be the most rewarding of her profession.
“We were really put to task and had some difficult, difficult times,” Riley said. “These challenges were things that haven’t been experienced in the law enforcement profession in many years, and the pandemic was just one of them.”
The Oro Valley Town Council appointed Kara Riley as chief in February 2020, after a months-long recruitment process, which attracted a lot of attention. People were curious about who was responsible for maintaining Oro Valley’s standing as one of Arizona’s safest locations, and the fact that the town council disagreed on whether to search for candidates nationally or only within the police department.
Ultimately, former chief Daniel Sharp got his wish when longtime OVPD member Riley was appointed to the job. This allowed for a smoother transition process between chiefs, he said.
“Fortunately, he trained us all in leadership, so it was mostly seamless,” Riley said. “But after three weeks, we got thrown into the pandemic, so it turned into a very quick transition period. Luckily once it was announced I got the opportunity, we were already prepared.”
Riley said her three biggest challenges during the first year were COVID-19, the Bighorn Fire and increased scrutiny of the law enforcement profession as protests spread across the nation.
From the first few weeks, the pandemic presented Riley with multiple logistical problems.
“The two things I ask myself each day is ‘Are we serving this community in the way they deserve?’ and ‘Am I keeping my staff safe?’ And if I can answer yes to both of those, we had a good day,” Riley said. “So those were two things we especially needed to focus on during the pandemic.”
Riley said COVID produced situations that she never envisioned would be considered as police calls, including mask and social distancing violations and lack of supplies in grocery stores. However, she said the department’s “Adopt-A-Business” program helped organize the process because relationships had already been formed. In the program, officers contact businesses in their patrol areas on a regular basis to provide routine security.
“We asked a lot of our community this past year, and it wasn’t just the pandemic, it also became the Bighorn Fire,” Riley said. “So we were combatting a wildland fire during a pandemic and had to keep people safe in multiple ways. Things continually pressed upon us. And time and time again, I would be asking more of my staff, and they never hesitated.”
The Bighorn Fire, which burned nearly 120,000 acres throughout the Catalina Mountains during June and July, forced residents out of their homes in Oro Valley, the Catalina Foothills and other areas.
The fire resulted in OVPD partnering with state and local firefighters for continuity of operations and contingency plans, sharing information about evacuations and assisting with a rendezvous point at Canyon del Oro High School — all while making sure officers had appropriate PPE to do so.
And right on top of the pandemic and wildfire, the largest protests in US history occurred throughout the nation after the killing of George Floyd. Calls during this time ranged from dismantling of police departments to defunding the police to reduced police militarization to higher accountability. While the protests resulted in damage to downtown Tucson, Oro Valley remained mostly calm.
Riley says that for OVPD, the protests mostly involved answering questions about procedures and officers. Because of this, she hesitated to call it “police reform,” but rather “police reassurance.”
“A lot of it, frankly, was messaging,” Riley said. “It came down to being able to explain that what happened in certain cases throughout this country were horrific, however, we’re not all painted the same way. I had to explain to certain community groups, and certainly to my agency, that I have a passion for this profession and we hire excellent police officers who serve this community. We want to continue that trust and transparency.”
Finally, at the end of last year, recreational marijuana was legalized in Arizona. Local dispensaries began selling their wares to a new, larger customer base.
In response to drug use, Riley says the department is a big proponent of “prevention through education,” including “Drug Awareness Day,” where hundreds of local fifth-graders gather in a park to discuss drug abuse and prevention. However, because of the pandemic, both the 2019 and 2020 Drug Awareness Days were canceled, leaving the department to “play catch-up.”
Recreational marijuana can also produce more impaired drivers. OVPD is partnering with the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety for extra deployment if needed to keep streets safer.
“It’s really new, so we’re dealing with a lot of changes with regards to traffic safety,” Riley said. “We’re very much involved with traffic when it comes to High Visibility Enforcement. That will always be part of drug use.”
All of these changes and reactions were not accomplished by the Chief alone, she said. Riley thanked all officers, particularly Command Staff for providing a “roadmap of leadership” during an unprecedented year.
“For me, it’s not about what I did. It’s about what the men and women of this agency did,” Riley said. “And it has humbled me to realize how fortunate I am and honored to be their police chief. I knew it as a Commander, but when you’re the chief and you go through everything I just listed, you just can’t thank them enough.”