Lifelong Mamaroneck resident Sandra DiRuzza was doing just fine in the business world, working as a project manager at Oxford Health Plans in White Plains, when 9/11 happened. “We were on the 18th floor and could see the smoke from Manhattan,” she recalls. In the days that followed, and like so many Americans, DiRuzza reflected on her life and became almost consumed with answering the question: What can I do to make a difference?
Although she thought her early 30s was “a little late in life for a career change,” she entered the police academy in Valhalla, where she was at least 10 years older than the majority of her classmates. “I hadn’t ever thought about being a police officer before, and I don’t even have any family in law enforcement,” she says.
Yet, upon graduation and entry into the Village of Mamaroneck Police Department in the spring of 2004, she set a definitive goal for herself: “I want to help victims of crime and female victims of domestic violence.” That mission was cemented during her third day on patrol, by herself, when she was called to a local park where a victim of domestic violence had been shot multiple times and died on the scene. “That was probably the worst day for me in law enforcement,” she says. “You always remember the bad days more than the good ones.”
More determined than ever, DiRuzza directed her energy toward creating a domestic violence unit in the department, simultaneously becoming a DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer. In just five years, she accomplished the goals she envisioned following 9/11, continuing to rise through the ranks while teaching classes at the academy on how to handle domestic violence situations.
However, there were times early on, she admits, when, “like all women, I put pressure on myself to go the extra mile and overcompensate to be as good as my male counterparts” in a field dominated by men. During such moments of self-doubt, DiRuzza would think back to the rigorous training she received at the academy. “A commanding presence is so important,” she notes. “If you carry yourself confidently, you can have the respect of everyone, on the street and in the precinct.”
Fast-forward a few ranks and 16 years, and DiRuzza was at the top of her game as a lieutenant, with thoughts of gender in the rearview (“I have a job to do, and I do it”), when her chief announced his retirement. DiRuzza threw her hat into the ring and was chosen as the Village of Mamaroneck’s first female police chief — during the height of COVID and as the country’s temperature was at a boiling point over the George Floyd case. “It’s tough to be a police officer right now,” she says. “Police officers are disheartened by the current climate.”
As chief, it’s on her shoulders to consistently remind her 50-member department that “people need us; we are important in the community, and we just have to roll with the changes.” Those changes include former Governor Cuomo’s mandate that requires precincts to, among other things: implement a policing reform plan that will maintain public safety while building trust in the community; train officers on how to intervene, regardless of rank, if they observe a colleague using undue force; and become New York State accredited by instituting 110 standards for police agencies.
“It’s important to make small changes, keep things positive, and praise officers when they do a good job,” she says. Now more than ever, DiRuzza believes community engagement is key. “People need to meet police officers in a positive environment, not just during a crime or emergency,” she adds, looking forward to her department’s participation in National Coffee With a Cop Day in October.
DiRuzza is an early bird and is usually at her desk by 7:30 a.m. “I can see the early-morning shift and the rest of the shifts throughout the day,” she explains. “And I’m available to anyone who needs me.” They’ll find her at a standing desk because, as she puts it: “Sitting is the new smoking.” It wouldn’t be a surprise to even spot the chief out on patrol every so often.
“Anytime I’m able to help somebody or when I can make a connection, that is a good day for me.”
When she’s not standing at her desk or out on the street, DiRuzza takes long walks to clear her head, practices deep breathing and meditation to maintain a sense of calm, and enjoys live music, particularly country, with her boyfriend, a retired sergeant.
As for what her best day on the job looks like, she says, “anytime I’m able to help somebody or when I can make a connection, that is a good day for me.” And while she struggles with the notion that she is, in fact, a role model in both her department and beyond: “If I can inspire more women to get into law enforcement, that’s a great thing.”