When Lalena Lamson was hired by the Ewing Police in 2003, she felt that as one of only two women in the department she had to work extra hard to prove herself to her fellow officers.
During the intervening years, she’s done that and more. Lamson not only has the admiration of her peers—they recently selected her as Ewing Police Officer of the Year.
The award is granted annually by the Ewing Community Organizations Promoting Police Services program, which sets the criteria for the Officer of the Year award and organizes an awards dinner, during which Lamson will be honored at the Trenton Country Club on June 1.
Over the years, Lamson has racked up a slew of titles as part of her work—evidence technician, crime scene investigator, arson investigator, composite sketch artist and background investigator. Aside from her police work, she’s also a cancer survivor and an accomplished artist.
Lieutenant Al Rhodes, the officer in charge of records and the community chair for the Officer of the Year award, works with a committee appointed by the chief of police to nominate an officer “based on their job performance, work ethic, overall relationship with the community, and how they represent the police department of Ewing.”
Rhodes says Lamson “is an excellent CSI. She has had some major cases where her work ethic and the job she has done has broken a case wide open that otherwise would have been a dead end.”
In one particular case, she found the only print in the house and it ended up closing the case. This, he says, illustrates “the kind of work ethic she has to do a complete and thorough job, which I think everybody notices.”
‘She was a small little speck in an ocean of all men. A lot of guys were dismissive of her, pushed her aside, and didn’t give her a voice… But she pushed through, and she made a difference.’
A resident of Titusville, Lamson, 43, took a circuitous route to reach this point in her career. When she was three or four, her parents split up, and she moved with her mother to “a rough part of town,” in Ridgewood, Queens.
“I grew up in a neighborhood—Section 8 as they call it now—where a lot of single mothers were struggling to make it,” she says. But it was that move that enabled her mother to graduate college with a degree in accounting and support her daughter.
Life in school was always difficult for Lamson, who says she was labeled by the other kids who knew about problems in her family background. The label, she says, “was that I wasn’t going to make it.”
Looking back on her school years, Lamson says, “I was always an oddball; I never quite fit in.” But even when she was “hanging out with the undesirable kids who were not going anywhere,” she managed to stay “on the outskirts.”
Even though “drugs were pushed on me from the time I was 12 years old,” she says, “I never touched it. For some reason I knew that was not for me.” Of course, her mother also “fought hard for me not to hang out with those people.”
“I didn’t really realize my worth probably until I was a junior in high school,” Lamson says. At Franklin K. Lane School, she failed 9th grade and had to redo everything in 10th grade. But at age 16 her aha moment came.
After watching the movie Silence of the Lambs, she was deeply moved by the main character, a young woman named Clarice Starling who was training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
“She was some no-name from West Virginia. Her dad had died; her past was not that great; she had had a tumultuous upbringing. But she wanted to bring a sense of fairness to law enforcement,” Lamson said. Starling was able to crack the case of a serial killer, Buffalo Bill, after gaining insight from the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant scientist who was a cannibalistic serial killer.
“Everything that led up to where she wound up to be was phenomenal,” Lamson says. “She was a small little speck in an ocean of all men. A lot of guys were dismissive of her, pushed her aside, and didn’t give her a voice, and that was basically how I felt my whole life. But she pushed through, and she made a difference.”
It was then that Lamson decided to become a police officer. She started working harder in school, and by senior year her grades were all in the 90s, and she was on dean’s list. She graduated with honors from Martin Van Buren High School in 1993.
Her mother was also an important role model for her. “My mom took her life and completely changed it,” Lamson says. “She went from being dependent on a man for money to being completely independent. She changed her life to make it better for me.”
After a year at Queensboro Community College, Lamson transferred to John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she studied criminal psychology and forensic toxicology. She also started a master’s program, which she did not finish.
In June 1995, she enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve to help pay for college, drilling during school breaks and the summer and working odd jobs in between to make ends meet.
After working as an emergency medical technician for the Jersey City Medical Center, she took the Civil Service exam and in 2001 was hired by the New Jersey State Park Police as a state park ranger. They paid for her to attend a 23-week residential program at the Cape May County Police Academy. Two years later, she decided she wanted to work as a community police offer and was hired by the Ewing Police.
The move wound up being a pretty big culture shock. “At the park you deal with motor vehicle problems, sometimes arguments here and there, an occasional teenager caught smoking pot,” she says. “Working for a township, you are dealing with residents who have real problems that need to be solved.” And the level of problems is far more serious.
As an EMT in Jersey City, she says, “I’d seen gun shots, dealt with a high volume of calls, and we were sometimes forced to work 24 hours a day. It wasn’t like I wasn’t accustomed to seeing violent crime.”
As an EMT and a ranger, people generally wanted her help, but as a Ewing officer, she says, “people call you because they want you there, but sometimes they don’t want to talk.” So Lamson had to learn “how to speak to people so they felt comfortable enough so they wanted to open up to you.”
“I don’t think people put a lot of stock in me in the beginning,” she says. Part of the issue was that she did not live in Ewing and didn’t always know the people she was dealing with. “Ewing Township is a tight-knit community,” she says. “A lot of cops grew up with some of the people I dealt with on a daily basis.”
Being a woman was another problem. She says that she faced doubt among her peers as to whether, at 5-foot, 3-inches and 120 pounds, she would be able to protect herself or protect another officer.
She says she realized then that she needed to take action to change her fellow officers’ perceptions of her. As she did in high school, she had to decide what she wanted and “really prove myself.”
With the goal of ultimately becoming a detective, she qualified as an evidence technician in 2005 and a crime scene investigator (CSI) in 2008.
Explaining the difference between the two, she says, “If there was a burglary to a house, where they broke a window, stole a TV, and left, they would send in an ET to collect evidence and dust for fingerprints. If there was a burglary where they ransacked a house and stole a gun, they would want a CSI, because they have the capability of doing other processes that ETs weren’t really trained to do.”
But the move to CSI came only after proving herself over time. “I began in 2005 to build a rapport with the guys I worked with because they could see my work at the time. I was committed when I came to processing a scene, and I honestly wanted to capture the suspect,” she says.
In 2008, the department sent her to a six-week course through the N.J. State Police Crime Scene School in Hamilton, where she learned the processes of using different chemicals to develop fingerprints, photography, how to process a scene so she could testify in court, how to get DNA evidence and how to testify in court.
Once Lamson had finished the CSI course, she continued her training, which eventually gained her an accredited national certification for crime scene investigator with the International Association for Identification in 2017. And in 2018 the New Jersey chapter of the association appointed as its 4th vice president.
Lamson is currently studying to become a certified latent print examiner, and the classes she has been taking over the last few years will be applied to her master’s program at John Jay College, which she is determined at last to finish.
Since 2010 she has been married to Ewing Patrolman Nick Lamson, a K-9 handler and trainer. Her daughter, Rhiannon, attends Hopewell Valley Central High School and her son Nicholas is at Bear Tavern Elementary School in Hopewell. Her stepdaughter, Paige, attends Lawrence Middle School.
But Lamson is not all about police work. She’s also a painter in her spare time. On her website she describes herself as a “self- taught and multi-media artist whose art would be best described as vividly fantasized surrealist illustrations.”
“Growing up, I was always drawn (pun intended) to art,” she says. “”I was able to draw since I was a child. My father was an illustrator and an oil painter. My mother was a singer and a guitar player, so in my mind, I was pretty much destined to be artsy.”
Lamson and her father did not have much of a relationship during her youth, but wound up reconciling when she was a teenager. They are both very close now.
Lamson says that in her late 20s and early 30s, she began designing tattoos for friends and co-workers, but it took overcoming breast cancer in 2012 to open her eyes to how much she loved being an artist.
“That battle made me realize that we all have an expiration date and no tomorrow was good enough,” she says. “It gave me the courage to actually share my art and start a business.”
As for the Officer of the Year award, Lamson says she is “humbled and honored to be recognized.”
Usually CSIs are not honored with the award because they are behind the scenes. Lamson is not just behind the scenes. She is also a patrol officer, and uses her own difficult personal experiences to relate to people in the community. “I know what they are going through sometimes. I can empathize, and if not I can sympathize,” she says.
“I know fear. I use my past in all its splendor to understand who I’m trying to help. If a young person is going down the wrong road, I open up and tell them my story. I want them to know they have choices.”
“You just have to believe in yourself; you just put one foot in front of another, and soon you’re where you want to be,” she says.