This year marks the first anniversary of Col. Melissa Zebley’s appointment as superintendent of the Delaware State Police and her 30th year on the force. While she’s enthusiastic about these personal accomplishments, she’s looking forward to an even bigger one, she says.
“We’re all very excited that 2023 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Delaware State Police force,” says Zebley, 52.
As one of three women to head a state police force in the U.S.—the others are in California and Alabama—Zebley presides over a contingent of 750 troopers and an administrative staff of 250 employees (when all positions are filled).
The celebration, now in the planning stages, will recognize all that has taken place since the Delaware force’s humble beginnings, which are succinctly chronicled on the state website: “The roaring twenties gave birth to the Delaware State Police,” it reads. “Cars speeding at 35 miles per hour, roving bands of troublemakers and bootleggers provided the impetus. The result of these factors led to the beginning, in 1923, of a State Police force in Delaware.”
A Delaware native, Zebley joined the force as a state trooper in 1992 shortly after she graduated from the University of Delaware, having come from a family background of public service. “My grandfather on my mother’s side was a city fireman,” she says, “and my grandfather on my mother’s side was a policeman, although I never got to meet him.” She adds parenthetically, “My parents’ names are Jack and Diane Zebley, although fewer young people get the reference these days.”
But it was during her time as a student at St. Mark’s High School, where she was on the track, tennis and basketball teams, that Zebley caught the policing bug. “There was a program called Police Explorers, and I got to ride along with a patrolman,” she recalls. “I was hooked.”
Her first assignment was with Troop 6, which occupies the barracks on Kirkwood Highway at Price’s Corner. After her first few years of patrolling, she was transferred to the training academy before returning to active duty as patrol sergeant in Troop 1 at Penny Hill. Later, she was promoted to a commander. “I have been in operations most of my career,” she says.
Along the way, she graduated from various training and education programs, including 10 weeks at the FBI National Academy. “We were each assigned a roommate, and mine was a sergeant in the New York police force.” On January 1, that sergeant, Keechant Sewell, was named by New York City’s newly elected mayor Eric Adams as the first female commissioner of the NYPD.
Fit and gregarious by nature, Zebley has been an athlete all her life. After St. Mark’s, she was a member of UD’s first intercollegiate soccer team and, after joining the force, she continued playing in a New Castle County soccer league. She also started running marathons and continues to run half-marathons and train daily at a local fitness studio.
As superintendent, her immediate staff is a lieutenant colonel and four majors, each of whom has specific arenas of administration responsibilities. “There are real challenges in a pandemic to operating a modern police department with all its functions while also being able to maintain the public trust,” Zebley says of her first year on the job. “One of my priorities is to be present with the troops to assure them they are being supported.”
And, as is the case with many businesses, Zebley and her staff are having to perform their duties understaffed and the force is now actively recruiting new members. As 55 years is the mandatory retirement age for the state police, the department was impacted when some retired early during the pandemic.
But the goal of having more diversity on the force according to race and gender hasn’t been lost. “Currently, 97 of the 730 troopers are women, which is slightly higher than the national average, although we want to have more,” she says.
At the time of her promotion to her current job last July, Gov. John Carney stated, “Lt. Col. Zebley has a tremendous track record of leadership at the Delaware State Police and is the right person to lead our largest police agency. …[She] has the trust of community leaders not only in New Castle County, but up and down our state.”
Always an optimist, the colonel believes that with the spring class of new recruits, the force will regain some of its hiring momentum that it had before the pandemic. “It’s a rigorous process in getting to be hired to any police force,” she says, then quickly adds, “But that’s as it should be.”