Jeri L. Williams, the first African-American woman to reach the rank of commander in the Phoenix Police Department, has continuing ties to Northern Arizona University and credits the institution as helping her prepare for her new position.

“Absolutely it helped,” she said. “The information and the studies in regards to leadership and leadership theory have been of tremendous assistance to me in fine-tuning my leadership skills with the department.”

Williams, 40, earned her master’s degree in educational leadership from NAU and is pursuing her doctorate in the same area. She is a distance student in the College of Education.

Williams has been with the Phoenix PD for 17 years and is one of 30 Phoenix police commanders. To reach that rank, one must work as a patrol officer, a sergeant and a lieutenant. It typically takes about 15 to 20 years on the force to reach the commander level.

Williams is a 1983 graduate of Phoenix’s Maryvale High School and has a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University.

Although she isn’t planning on leaving the Phoenix Police Department anytime soon, she is pursuing her doctorate because she wants to keep her options open.

“I would like to some day be in either the university setting or possibly in administration within one of the valley school districts,” she said. “True leadership can make a positive difference for the community.”

Education is the key to making that difference, she explained. “Leaders come and go. Jobs change as well. With a foundation in education and leadership, one is able to make the necessary shifts and change with the times,” Williams said.

Police Chief Jack Harris told the Arizona Republic that Williams’ first assignment as a commander “is very demanding and one of huge responsibility.” Williams will be “duty commander” four nights of the week, working from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and will act as the chief of the force during those hours.

“I’ve had that job,” Harris said to the Republic. “You go to crime scenes constantly to sort things out; you are alone, you are in charge, and you are the one everyone else goes to. You have to make decisions on the spot, and when you wake the chief, you better have a good reason.”

As a wife, mother and full-time police officer, Williams’ said the biggest obstacle to earning her degree is learning how to manage all of her duties. “I am blessed to have a very supportive family,” she said. “And the online classes allowed greater flexibility in completing coursework.”

Her advice to potential students thinking of following in her footsteps is to contact NAU staff and advisors right away. “All of the staff at NAU has been extremely helpful and accessible,” she said. “Other state universities make processes challenging and frustrating. Thanks NAU!”