Melissa Zak
Melissa Zak (University of Colorado Police Department)

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to show that Melissa Zak is the second woman to be hired as a police chief in Boulder County.

After two decades with the Los Angeles Police Department -- much of which she spent watching over the University of Southern California's campus -- Melissa Zak was ready to take what she had learned to a university police force.

"I wanted to take that 20 years and apply that experience at another agency," Zak said.

Now, after five months as deputy chief at the University of Colorado Police Department, Zak will get to apply that experience as the school's top cop. CU announced the move Wednesday.

Before coming to Boulder, Zak was a captain in Los Angeles, overseeing gang and detective operations while supervising more than 400 employees and managing events such as USC football games and the Academy Awards.

But Zak said in 2012, the shooting deaths of two USC graduate students from China turned her attention toward working at a university.

"I really started to take to heart campus policing and how these students are high-profile targets," she said. "I see a lot of room to grow in campus policing. It's the next evolution of policing, in my opinion."

Zak, 44, also said that with five children ranging from 7 to 13, she was also looking to move her family out of Los Angeles and find a job with steadier hours so she could spend more time with them.

"I had this fear that one day I would be in the office and I would see my kid walk through in handcuffs because I spent so much time at work," she said. "I had to think about what I wanted my kids exposed to. It is such a critical time, and I wanted to be a mom. I realized as a captain with LAPD, I couldn't do that."

Zak's husband has family in Castle Rock and a nephew who went to CU, so Zak had been to Boulder for Buffs football games. When the deputy chief position opened up, she called then-Chief Joe Roy.

"When the position came open I thought, 'What an opportunity,'" she said.

So Zak moved with her family to Erie and began working at CU in July. She was scheduled to start in August, but she told Roy she wanted to make sure she was on the job before the semester started.

"Things here go in cycles, so I wanted to get my feet on the ground before then," she said. "I got settled in and rolled right into move-ins and football games."

Zak also got a crash course in working with other area agencies when historic rains flooded Boulder County in September. All in all, Zak said, she has learned a lot in her short time on the campus.

"It's been a whirlwind, but I've really been able to take advantage and learn how to communicate and work with the people I need to," she said.

Roy retired in August after serving as CU police chief for eight years. Ron Burns, a former Lakewood police chief, had been serving as the interim campus chief.

Zak is the fifth person -- and the first woman -- to be named chief of police at CU since the department was formed in 1949. She will be only the sixth active female police chief in the state and just the second ever in Boulder County, according to the Colorado Association of the Chiefs of Police.

Zak said she would like to be treated as any other police chief, but she also acknowledged she does feel some extra responsibility as a woman holding such a high-ranking position in law enforcement.

"I'd like to be treated like any other police chief, but when I look in the mirror I see a woman in the mirror, and I realize it's not about just me," she said. "It's about my gender and about being in a position where I can be an example for others to follow."

Zak said her focus will be on making sure the 46 CU police officers are ready for any situation. She said in light of recent campus shootings in Colorado, it's something all campus police departments have to be aware of.

"We don't have the volume of cases on a college campus to hone our skills," she said. "So we have to make sure our officers are prepared. That is my goal."

She also said she wants to open up communication with students.

"I want there to be that level of respect and trust," she said. "My job is to keep them safe. I want them to be safe, and I want them to look at us to help them stay safe."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Mitchell Byars at 303-473-1329, byarsm@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/mitchellbyars.