Kathy Zoner, who has led the Cornell Police Department since 2009 as the University’s first female top cop, said Thursday that she will leave Cornell for a consulting post on March 4 after more than a quarter century in various roles with the department.
Zoner will become the director of organizational assessments for Margolis Healy, a consulting firm that works with college campuses and K-12 schools to improve security, crisis response and other safety procedures.
Cornell has not picked a replacement for Zoner and officials declined to say on Thursday how wide of a search Cornell will conduct for her successor, who will be involved and what qualities they are looking for.
Zoner, who graduated from Ohio State University and at the top of her class in the 10-week FBI National Academy program, joined the Cornell Police Department as a dispatcher in 1991. She said in an interview Thursday morning that the stint gave her more respect for what happens before police arrive at a scene.
She later served the department as a patrol officer, sergeant, special projects manager, lieutenant, captain and assistant director. Then, in 2007, she became deputy chief, her last role before being appointed chief in 2009. It was during meetings with student groups to plan events and lectures — sometimes controversial ones — that Zoner “felt like I really got to know the heartbeat of the campus,” she said.
Zoner, known by friends and officers as KZ, did not shy away from joining community rallies or texting directly with student activists, several of whom had her cell phone number. Under her tenure, the department added body cameras and sought to connect with the Cornell community in unique ways.
In a February 2017 interview in her office, she stressed that both sides of police interactions are vital to effective policing. “Accountability goes both ways,” Zoner said at the time. “It’s both on the officer and the public.”
And while she has overseen several high-profile investigations, Zoner is probably best known among students for her Blue Light email. Zoner began sending the mostly-weekly newsletter about campus safety in 2012 following a series of frightening sexual assaults, but it later morphed into a vehicle for humorous reminders about safety. In each email, Zoner included links to memes and other funny material.
“I am very pleased that [the Blue Light newsletter] is a Cornell Police icon and will not be going away,” Zoner said.
The most challenging times of Zoner’s tenure at Cornell were when she saw the impact of deaths, serious injuries and other tragedies on victims’ families. Maybe the highest-profile incident under Zoner’s tenure was the killing of Ithaca College student Anthony Nazaire and non-fatal stabbing of his friend next to Carpenter Hall and Ho Plaza in August of 2016. Ithaca Police led the investigation with Cornell’s support, resulting in the arrest and conviction of an Ithaca man for murder.
Following tragedies, “it’s very hard to take a step back from the emotions” in order to work the case, but also “still have people see that we really do care,” Zoner said.
On the other hand, Zoner said the most satisfying part of the job was seeing newer officers realize that they can keep the community safe while ensuring all parties are as happy as possible.
“We want to make sure that even in the worst of times, people are treated in the best way possible,” Zoner said. “That is something that really takes that trust building with the community and you can’t do that if you’re not out there.”
“We’re at a constant battle with the media’s portrayal of police,” she added, “And we definitely want to be aligned with the original intent of service-orientation, making sure people are being treated well.”
Joanne DeStefano, executive vice president and chief financial officer at Cornell, told the Cornell Chronicle, which is run by the University, that Zoner would be dearly missed.
“Ever since she began working at Cornell in 1991 as a dispatcher — and all through her subsequent roles of increasing responsibility — KZ has been dedicated to the safety of the Cornell community,” DeStefano said, according to the University.
DeStefano, to whom the police chief reports, did not respond to questions Thursday about the search for Zoner’s successor. Cornell spokesperson John Carberry said the University did not have any information about what the search process will include.
Zoner said she has “no concerns” about the future of the department and is confident in Cornell’s ability to find a competent chief. Zoner will continue living in the Ithaca area while working for the consulting firm.
Steven Healy, the CEO of Margolis Healy, told The Sun that Zoner will lead a part of the firm that works with campus police and other college safety organizations.
Healy, who was the director of public safety at Princeton University from 2003 to 2009, said Zoner will lead reviews of campus police departments’ safety practices, represent the firm at conferences and work with colleges on Clery Act compliance and a wide range of other responsibilities.
“We’re really super excited to have her,” Healy said. “I don’t even know how we got so lucky to convince her to join us.”
Zoner’s decision to leave Cornell comes two days after another Ithaca chief announced he was leaving his post. Chief Pete Tyler of the Ithaca Police Department said Tuesday that he would be retiring on May 31 after a 28-year career in policing and would begin working part-time training first responders and teaching other skills.