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EXCLUSIVE: Rising through the ranks, a Lieutenant’s call to serve

Published: Feb. 3, 2022 at 6:40 PM EST
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WNDU) - When someone says police officer, you probably think of a man and that makes sense. While efforts have been made to recruit more females, it is still a male dominated profession. According to the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives, women currently make up between 12-13% of all law enforcement personnel.

In this 16 News Now exclusive report, Christine Karsten introduces us to a local woman who has been rising through the ranks and is making history.

If Lt. Kayla Miller looks familiar, she should. Many of you know her as a detective at the South Bend Police Department or maybe you recognize her as the Coordinator for Michiana Crime Stoppers, but we have a story you don’t know. It is one many of her colleagues don’t know, the reason she decided, at the age of 5, that she needed to be in law enforcement.

“At five what I remember is her funeral, because she was in the service, there was a 21-gun salute,” says Lt. Kayla Miller.

On March 17, 1988, Kayla’s aunt, Anita Lukander, went out with some friends for St. Patrick’s Day. At the end of the night, she was dropped off at home. That was the last time anyone would see her alive. Her husband, also in the Navy, was out to sea on deployment.

“It was nine days later a fisherman found her in a local bay and that started the investigation,” continues Lt. Miller.

What also started, Kayla’s passion for law enforcement.

“I can remember vividly being a kid and reading every book that there was about crimes and trying to solve them and playing detective when I was a kid,” says Lt. Miller.

The investigation into Anita’s homicide remained hot for close to 9 years. The case went to trial. The suspect was acquitted.

“I think we are at a point now that I don’t know if we will ever know the answers. Jury members spoke to my family and told them that in their hearts they believed that they had the right person, but the evidence wasn’t there,” says Lt. Miller.

It was that moment that solidified Kayla’s focus, she wanted to investigate homicides.

“The pain that my family felt of not knowing, the unknown, I don’t want another family to feel that, so it just drives me,” continues Lt. Miller.

“These are some of the most heinous crimes that affect our community, so it takes a unique individual to investigate these crimes and it is also the pinnacle of being a police officer or being a detective is to investigate homicides,” explains Capt. Jason Biggs who oversees the South Bend Police Department Investigative Bureau.

“Make no mistake, you are working incredible hours, the tension you are under, the stress you are feeling, the horror you are seeing over and over and over again, it takes a toll,” adds St. Joseph County Prosecutor, Ken Cotter.

With big dreams on the horizon, in 2002, Kayla went to school for Criminal Justice. She spent time as a deputy sheriff for the Wabash County Sheriffs’ Department and time with the Indiana State Excise Police. Then in 2012, she joined the South Bend Police Department and quickly moved up the ranks.

“A lot of that is because of who she is. The drive that she had and the unique ability to connect to the community like she does,” says Capt. Biggs.

Kayla started as an afternoon officer. Three years later, she became the Coordinator for Michiana Crime Stoppers, a position historically held by Lieutenants, and joined the Investigative Bureau. In 2018, Kayla was promoted to Sergeant and began overseeing Major Crimes and by the end of that year, she helped implement and oversee the Shooting Response Team, a group of detectives dedicated to investigating non-fatal shootings.

“She actually reached out, asked to come and meet with me, talk to me, told me that her goal was to investigate homicides and she wanted to know what steps she needed to do be able to make that happen,” explains Cotter.

And on October 15, 2021, she got her shot. The South Bend Police Department started investigating homicides again. Kayla was promoted to Lieutenant.

“The way she connects, the way she communicates, either be it with Crime Stoppers or being in charge of the negotiators, she has a unique ability to communicate with others,” says Capt. Biggs.

“She is always trying to do better; she is always trying to learn more; she is trying to figure out how can I do this in a different way so that we get a quicker result but ensuring that we get a sure result,” says Cotter.

Kayla now oversees every single shooting and homicide investigation in South Bend, making her the city’s very first female homicide investigator.

“It’s hard to put in perspective because it just feels right. It is almost surreal, I think, that what I have wanted to do for so long is finally here. When we are able to sit down with a family and say, ‘we know what happened with your loved one’s case, we know what the circumstances are surrounding that and we are here to tell you today that we are making an arrest.’ in that moment, everything else is gone. My family’s past isn’t present at that point. It is just us that is working the case and that family, and it that moment that is all that matters,” explains Lt. Miller.

Every police department wishes they didn’t have to investigate homicides. Unfortunately, they do. But Lt. Miller says the South Bend Police Department has an amazing team of skilled detectives willing to go over and beyond for our families, saying these shootings aren’t just another number to them.

They all have one goal, to help turn every victim into a survivor.

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