TAMPA — Two and a half decades ago, a young Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office patrol deputy named Chad Chronister took note of an impressive fellow rookie.
It was the early 1990s, the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, and Chronister and Donna Lusczynski worked together in District III, near the University of South Florida.
"In a crime ridden area, Deputy Lusczynski was aggressive in her enforcement, yet also fair and compassionate," Chronister recalled.
The two would ascend through the ranks of the agency, becoming friends and eventually landing on the sheriff's command staff as colonels.
On Monday, they made history together when Chronister, now sheriff, pinned the chief deputy's star onto Lusczynski's crisp white uniform shirt.
The promotion marks the first time since the agency's founding more than 170 years ago that a woman has held the second-highest post. Along with setting a precedent at her own agency, Lusczynski also will hold a special place in the annals of Tampa Bay law enforcement: It's the first time a woman has become second in command of a sheriff's office in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco or Hernando counties.
As historic as her promotion is, Lusczynski's gender had nothing to do with her promotion, Chronister said in an interview after Monday's ceremony.
"She is by far the most qualified to help our agency move forward in modern times," he said.
Lusczynski, 49, succeeds the retiring José Docobo, who served for 14 years as Sheriff David Gee's chief deputy and worked his last day on Friday after 37 years with the Sheriff's Office.
Gee abruptly retired last year and asked Gov. Rick Scott to appoint Chronister to serve until this November's election. Chronister must win to finish Gee's term.
Chronister's tapping of Lusczynski also marks the most significant promotion he's made since taking office in September.
"Donna, regardless if we were working with or for each other, I have always looked up to you, learned so much from you and have the utmost respect and confidence in you," Chronister told Lusczynski in front of a crowd of roughly 350 who gathered for the ceremony at the agency's Falkenburg Road campus. "I couldn't be more proud, grateful and excited as we partner to usher in the next era here at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office."
When it was her turn to speak, Lusczynski thanked Chronister for what she called an honor and a privilege, a career pinnacle she didn't think was possible when she first started.
"I believe in his vision for our office to ensure the tradition of 171 years of service to our community continues while maintaining our professionalism and integrity and at the same time being the best law enforcement agency in this country," she said. "I want you to know you have my commitment to work tirelessly with you, the staff and our deputies to ensure that that happens."
Lusczynski — the surname is Polish and pronounced Luh-ZIN-skee — was born in New York City and grew up in a working class family in Roxbury, N.J. She moved to Hillsborough County in 1987 and joined the Sheriff's Office in 1991, a time when there were few female supervisors at the office.
She held posts in street crimes, narcotics, vice and internal affairs before earning a promotion to sergeant. She later transferred to what was then a new Child Protective Investigations Division, where she helped develop the division's structure and procedures.
Lusczynski was then promoted from lieutenant to captain and assigned to oversee Patrol District 3, which covers the northwest region of the county. As a major, Lusczynski served as commander of the Special Investigations and Criminal Investigations divisions.
In her most recent role as one of four colonels on the sheriff's command staff, Lusczynski commanded the Department of Investigative Services, among other duties.
Many people in Tampa Bay will recognize Lusczynski from her frequent on-camera news briefings at crime scenes.
Lusczynski has a bachelor's degree in criminology from the University of Tampa and a master's degree in public administration from Troy State University. She is also a graduate of the FBI National Academy. She is divorced and lives in Tampa.
During her remarks, Lusczynski said she was grateful to Gee and Docobo for giving her a chance. (Neither attended the ceremony — Chronister said Gee had a prior family engagement and Docobo wanted to make a quiet exit.) She also gave a nod to women who came before her, including two of the agency's first female majors, Mary Tully and Elaine White, as well as former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor.
"I had inspiration from a number of females in positions of leadership to show that it was possible," she said.
The chief deputy is responsible for most of the day-to-day operations and has a critical role in developing the annual budget. Among other priorities, Chronister has tasked her with completing a school safety plan and addressing the agency's ongoing shortage of roughly 200 deputies.
Lusczynski's annual salary as colonel was $151,590.40. Sheriff's Office spokesman Cpl. Larry McKinnon said her new salary as chief deputy has not been set yet. Docobo's annual salary at the time of his retirement was $173,576.
Along with her top post at the Sheriff's Office, Lusczynski is also taking an active role in her boss's political campaign. She serves as both the chairwoman and treasurer of a political action committee called Law Enforcement for Responsible Government created to help fund his bid. The committee has raised nearly $341,000, records show.
Chronister said he aims to improve diversity at the Sheriff's Office from the patrol ranks to the command staff and he's glad that promoting the best person to the chief deputy post happens to contribute to that goal.
"I love being part of breaking glass ceilings," he said. "I think we're going to break a lot more."
Lusczynski hopes her own ascendancy sparks an interest in men and women alike to apply to work for the Sheriff's Office.
"I would like for other people to be inspired and females to come and work for the office and see there's more advance possibilities, but it's that way for everybody," she said.
Contact Tony Marrero at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.