Kara Riley

Oro Valley Police Department

By Dave Perry

After years living in Sudan, 16-year-old new driver Kara Riley sped down a Tucson street.

 She was pulled over by a Tucson police officer.

 “Can women do this?” she asked, in the form of a career inquiry. “He looked at me as if I was crazy. And he said, ‘Yes.’” Right then, “I knew, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Riley’s 38-year law enforcement career has taken her from Pima County Corrections, to the Tucson Airport Authority, and finally to the Oro Valley Police Department after she “became a mom.” Twenty years after her start at OVPD, she is “your police chief.”

 “I don’t think twice” about leading as a woman, Riley said.

 “She’s never wanted to be treated any differently,” said OVPD Deputy Chief Curtiss Hicks. “Her gender has no bearing, both on the way she leads, and the way people treat her. She’s a genuine leader.”

Riley succeeded her mentor, longtime OVPD Chief Danny Sharp, on Feb. 22, 2020. Within weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the Bighorn Fire ignited on Oro Valley’s edge, and George Floyd was killed.

 “It’s been an adventure,” she said. “But I get to work with amazing men and women.”

She holds Oro Valley’s 107 sworn officers, 35 civilian staff, and numerous volunteers in the highest regard.

 “It isn’t me,” Riley said. “They’re the heroes, selfless and courageous.” It is “an honor and privilege” to serve them. “I couldn’t be more proud of everything they do, every day. And they do it every day.”

 “She cares about her people, which is huge, but she also cares about the community,” Hicks said.

At OVPD, “we foster and encourage a family environment,” Riley said. “That sets our culture apart from others.”

The OVPD culture emphasizes integrity, respect, compassion, gratitude, and a belief in “doing the right thing for the right reason.” Riley goes on patrol regularly, in part to be “shoulder to shoulder” with her officers. “I never ask them to do something I wouldn’t do myself.

“I love these men and women, and I think they know it,” Riley said. “I hope they do. If I have a legacy, it’s unconditional love for them, humility, and remember where you came from.”

She’s not tall, but Riley acknowledges people look up to her. “Even when I get called ‘chief,’ I still find it humbling. I’m a police officer who happens to have been appointed a police chief.”

Riley’s husband Joe Shelley is a retired police officer, commander and chief. Daughter Cecelia Sickelbower, 22, is studying anti-terrorism analytics.

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