Meet Malverne’s first female police officer

She’s set an example for more women to join local policing


Eighteen years ago, Joanne McNelis became Malverne’s first woman police officer. Since she paved the way, three more women have followed their calling to law enforcement in the village.

“It was a lot of responsibility,” McNelis, 51, said of her trailblazing effort. “I must make sure I put my best foot forward, and I do the town, the village, the department a good service. That I’m up to the standard of everybody else.”

McNelis remains the only female officer in the Malverne Police Department. But the village’s Police Reserves, a volunteer law enforcement group, now has three women in its ranks: Andrea Jagal, Georgia Leppard and Michelle Zapata. Mayor Tim Sullivan and the board of trustees were honor these women on Wednesday, March 6 in Village Hall.

For Jagal, who moved to Malverne nine years ago from Rosedale, being a part of the reserves is a way for her to fulfill a dream that others said wasn’t meant for her.

“I was always a very skinny person,” Jagal, 46, said. “So they always said, no, I would never make it in the police force. When I moved to Malverne and saw they had a police reserve, I was like, wow, this is great to join and to serve the community.”

McNelis always knew she had a calling to help people — but she first answered that calling by becoming a health care worker. She studied cardiorespiratory science at Molloy College, now Molloy University, in Rockville Centre, and became a respiratory therapist.

But she had always wanted to be a police officer. Her father and all of her uncles were cops. She saw how they helped others, and knew she could do that, too.

“It’s just there’s something in me,” McNelis said. “That drive. I love it; I’m passionate about it. I want to help people. I want to let people know there’s good out there — and we’re here. We’ll do whatever it takes to make you feel safe and secure.”

So, 15 years into her medical career, she made the change and enrolled in the Nassau County Police Academy. She was one of two women in her class. She wasn’t sure if she’d ever be called up to be an officer — but in 2006, she joined the Malverne P.D.

Not only was McNelis able to do everything her male colleagues could, but there have been many situations to which she brought a much-needed female perspective and presence. In cases of lost children, or domestic disputes, the victims often feel more at ease with a woman than a man in uniform.

Now McNelis, Jagal Leppard and Zapata are serving their communities the way they’ve always wanted to.

“I love the camaraderie with my entire department,” McNelis said. “I love the residents. I live in Malverne, I grew up here, so I just want that connection. We really are community policing. It’s what makes me happy, and that’s why I love it — you really have people in the community who appreciate you.”

“It’s a wonderful town to be in,” Jagal said. “I enjoy doing special events, meeting different people.”

Both women have shown their sons the strength they have, and that it’s always possible to follow your dreams. “It’s just great for my kids to see something that their mom is doing,” Jagal added, “and they actually appreciate giving back to the community.”

“They can actually witness that there is an Act Two,” McNelis said. “You don’t have to be typecast into one role or job. You can change careers. It doesn’t matter how old you are — if you want it, you can make it happen. Go for it.”