“I used to think that for one to be successful in police work a masculine leadership style was the way to go, until I realized that in police work when women leaders act the way their male counterparts do, we get labeled as a “B*&#h”
Captain Tina Nieto is one of those women that blazes their own path to success. She rose through the ranks of the Los Angeles police force to become the first female Hispanic Captain in LAPD’s history. Now she is the Area Commanding Officer at Olympic Division that covers Koreatown, Lil Bangladesh, Wilshire, East Hollywood and parts of Pico-union. It is a division with more than 270 employees serving an area with approximately 217,000 residents. We can thank our lucky stars to have her protecting and serving our community while also being an important role model.
Aside from being a proven leader, Nieto also holds a Masters Degree in Leadership and Management and a B.S. in Criminal Justice. She often speaks on the topic of leadership and ethical decision-making. It’s great having a leader that puts ethical decision-making high on their list of importance.
So don’t let the police uniform and her license to carry a firearm intimidate you. She’s extremely personable and relatable. She spends her weekends with her dogs and domestic partner in Orange County. When you meet her, you want to invite her out for a drink and get to know her better. While Captain Nieto and I aren’t drinking buddies, yet, I did have the chance to learn more about the woman behind the uniform.
Power Point: (PP): What drew you to the police force?
Captain Nieto (CN): Well when I was younger and started college, like many of today’s young people, I did not know what I really wanted to do. I started out as a Marine Biology major, switched to Psychology, switched again to Hotel Restaurant Management, and then took a class in the police sciences. The one class I took in police sciences made me realize that this was a profession where I could help people and my community, and where I wouldn’t be tied to a desk. I really liked the idea of making decisions on the go without having a boss breathing down my neck. I also liked that it was an exciting career. Okay maybe I had seen too many movies, but nevertheless, I have never regretted choosing this career.
PP: How do you think your knowledge and expertise in leadership influenced your job as a police officer?
CN: I was very fortunate to have worked my way through college, and receive a commission in the United States Army Reserve prior to joining the LAPD. College helped me appreciate diversity in thinking, working helped me understand the value in earning things on my own, and the Army invested time and money in teaching me the basic principles of leadership. This was extremely beneficial in helping shape me into a better police officer. Yes, when I first joined the department, I had a lot to learn, but my prior experience helped make the path easier.
I believe that I was more empathetic to the different cultures and ways of thinking when working with the community, and more willing to listen. Listening is so important for police officers in order to help work through issues that arise in our communities.
College and the military also gave me a foundation to understand dysfunctional dynamics that occur at the community, group, and individual level. This understanding gave me the ability to help move people through dysfunction towards functional dynamics. A book will never solve a problem; however education opens the possibilities to learn from others and their experiences. Lastly, the military gave me the opportunity to practice leadership in a safe environment, where mistakes could be made in order to learn from them. These were all skills and knowledge I was able to immediately apply to police work.
PP: Do you think being a female Commanding Officer lends itself to leading the LAPD differently than a male Commanding Officer? In what ways?
CN: Yes and no. I used to think that for one to be successful in police work a masculine leadership style was the way to go, until I realized that in police work when women leaders act the way their male counterparts do, we get labeled as a “B*&#h”. This may not be “fair”, but leaders have to learn to be adaptive in their approach to people and problems.
Depending on the situation and the gender of the parties involved, different models of leadership must be used. Studies show that men and women differ in their communication styles and tactics on a day to day basis, and it is only natural that we carry over these traits to the workplace. I can’t pretend to be what I am not, at least not for long. I spend an inordinate amount of time listening and talking to the people I work with and around. I really know people’s stories in the community, and people accept that I care about them. I do think this is more of a feminine trait. I was socialized this way growing up purely based on gender to be more relationship oriented. People generally are not as intimidated by me because of this. My male counterparts have a harder time breaking through this barrier.
On the other hand, my girlfriends tell me that I process information like a man, in trying to solve things. I have spent my entire adult life in male dominated fields and it has shaped me to become very goal oriented at times.
PP: What have been your biggest challenges in your career? How have you overcome these challenges?
CN: My biggest challenges in my career have been when I failed to listen to others, and not recognizing the need to ask for help. It’s not easy being a female leader in a male dominated field. It took me awhile to learn the politics of the organization in order to not be perceived as a liability, but instead be recognized as an asset. There is a saying that leaders don’t play politics, they take it very seriously. Early in my career I told myself that I would not play politics, not truly understanding that politics is really just another word for the organization’s culture and unwritten rules. So I had to learn to listen better and ask for help from loving critics in order to navigate the LAPD culture without losing my integrity and values. Since culture shifts over time, it is a constant challenge to continue be an effective leader.
PP: What skills do you think were most helpful in reaching the rank of Commanding Officer?
CN: Listening. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, has been quoted on saying, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” My experience has shown me that most people do not know how to listen to others or have not practiced the art. In solving complex and dynamic problems I have to really understand what other parties are trying to communicate. When I am working with the community, people are never at a loss for passion, drive, and caring about the topic or problem at hand. Deep, empathic listening is usually the one ingredient that is lacking. I have worked years at trying to listen empathically to become adept at it. I am not always successful, but when I am, it has given me the ability to see a situation simultaneously from multiple points of view. This skill is a “must” for any successful leader and has certainly helped me as I have advanced through the ranks.
PP: What is being done to encourage more women to join the police force?
CN: The LAPD encourages women to apply to our organization, the information can be found at http://www.joinlapd.com/women_prep.html
We also have the Candidate Assistance Program (CAP) to assist women in passing the physical requirements of the Police Academy. In addition, the program gives women a head start on getting in the best shape of your life. It teaches them what to expect at the Academy, and familiarizes them with Police Academy training style.
We also send our recruiters to job fairs and conferences that are geared toward women. Diversity in our ranks is very important to the LAPD.
PP: As a strong, proven leader, what leadership books would you recommend?
CN: The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen Covey and Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky.
PP: What do you do when you’re not on the job?
CN: I am an avid photographer and have been in both local and international photography shows. I got bored several years ago and took a bunch of classes at the local community college getting a certification in photography. I figured if the police thing didn’t work out, I could become a starving artist instead. My favorite genre is Environmental Portraits; a style executed in the subject’s usual environment, such as in their home or workplace, and typically illuminates the subject’s life and surroundings. I find people fascinating.
My other passion is spending time with my family and dogs in the mountains hiking and kayaking. My two little dogs usually go out kayaking with me on the lake. They have their own life vests. Safety first!
(PP): It’s good to see that the police thing is working out because we need more people like you serving and leading our community.
City of Los Angeles First Lady Amy Wakeland and Captain Tina Nieto
Photography by Captain Tina Nieto
To learn more about Captain Nieto, you can visit: http://www.lapdonline.org/lapd_command_staff/comm_bio_view/37807
To learn more about the history of female police officers in the LAPD: http://www.lapdonline.org/history_of_the_lapd/content_basic_view/833