Command Issue September 2018

Tondini sworn in as NAWLEE president 

By Sherrie Phipps

Dawn Tondini began her career with the Marion Police Department nearly 25 years ago. It all began when Dawn was a child— she’d dream of serving as an honorable police officer.

“My dad was a police officer and it’s really the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do,” said Dawn. “I was always fascinated. As a kid, I would read his PTI (Police Training Institute) books and in there were things about DUIs and dead bodies and stuff.”
Dawn’s father was a detective with East Peoria. He later joined the Illinois State Police as a crime scene supervisor— which also sparked Dawn’s interest in becoming a member herself.

In the early 1990s, Dawn devoted her time as a volunteer auxiliary officer. She engaged in the thrill of going out on ride-a-longs with the other officers. At the time, the city had been experiencing a major gender gap between women and men within the department—which ultimately put her dreams on hold.

“The guys had told me the mayor would never hire a female officer,” she recalls.

In February 1993, Dawn was asked to join the team as a part-time, and eventually full-time, dispatcher. Later that year, in August, Marion Police Chief Ronald Swafford approached Dawn by surprise.
“He came to me and said, ‘Hey do you still want to go to the road?’,” Dawn said. “I said yeah, and he told me, ‘You start Monday... The mayor knows and he says he likes you’.”

Dawn was the first female to serve in the Marion Police Department. Throughout the years she has worked her way through the ranks, leading to her current position as chief. Prior to chief, Dawn has served as a patrol officer, detective, patrol sergeant and lieutenant.
In recent years, she’s made it her duty to drastically change the department’s use of technology.

“Our department was so far behind technologically,” Dawn explained. “I put computers in all the squad cars. I even replaced all the cameras and radios as well. We had an old archaic system that didn’t work most of the time.”

Prior to becoming chief, Dawn had been working as the only woman in the field. Although she’d been making many strides within the department, she often felt like something was missing.

“When I joined in 1995 there weren’t a lot of women executives at the time,” Dawn explained. “When I made sergeant, I was outnumbered. I started to look for things because I knew there had to be something for female police officers. So that’s how I found NAWLEE— by just a Google search.”
NAWLEE, the National Association of Women in Law Enforcement Executives, serves to further the interests of women who are or aspire to be executives in law enforcement. After serving as a vice president, she was sworn in as the organization’s national president in August at NAWLEE’s annual conference in Los Angeles. She is serving for one year.

“I think it’s important not only for us to continue to support, encourage and train women law enforcement executives that are in place now, but to also encourage these younger females coming up through the departments— to let them know that they can get here, too,” the new president said.

According to a 2016 survey that looked at the gender distribution of full-time U.S. law enforcement employees, 88% were men versus 12% women. As for Illinois specifically, Dawn believes this to be a cause and effect from low recruitment and lower interest from women in general. Illinois has only about ten women serving as chiefs of local police departments.

“A lot of times it’s having that right partner,” she said. “Luckily, my husband was encouraging, but I had already started in law enforcement before I met him and I told him, ‘I’m not giving it up’.”

Dawn revealed that early in her career, she and her husband battled a difficult work schedule where many nights her parents shared the responsibility of caring for her children.

“My husband owned a record service, so there were nights I had to take the kids to my mom and dad’s,” she explained. “There’d be nights when he was working 24 hours and I was working 24 hours, but luckily I had that support system there to help me because a lot of times, women are torn between what’s more important: a career or a family?”

Not only has her supportive family system been a contributing factor to her success, she also noted NAWLEE has a wonderful guide of support and mentorship. She believes the association gives women a good basis of support and is a wonderful avenue for networking.

To put things into perspective, she recalled reading an article in the NAWLEE Newsletter, written by Chief Kristen Ziman of Aurora, Illinois, who had previously served as the national NAWLEE president.

“She had written a story about trying to arrest some guy,” Dawn laughed. “He was huge and she’s small, you know. But I remember him running away from her and she was chasing him. She jumped on his back and she’s riding. After a little while, she tells the guy, we can do this one or two ways, I’m not going to fight you... So, we can both save face if you just stop running. And he did!”

Dawn expressed relief in knowing that other women are out on the job encountering similar daily experiences. The beauty in making that connection through the female-based organization was knowing that she and other women are together and not alone. Said Tondini: “As women officers, we realize we’re not going to be able to take down a 300-pound guy and handcuff them, so we do things a different way— we’re talkers. Communication is our biggest asset— and I thought it was great to read her article.”

Dawn disclosed a few things she’d like to accomplish as the next NAWLEE president. One is to increase the recruitment numbers for women interested in law enforcement, and she’d also like to incorporate training specific to women in the field. Believing men and women handle situations differently, she thinks it’s best to have workshops designed specifically for women to enhance the visibility of their work.

Dawn is also encouraging her executive male counterparts to help in the process of recruiting more women.

“I’d hope they realize we are outnumbered. If they have funds in their training budget, I’d encourage them to help support their female colleagues in getting involved whether it be in NAWLEE or the Women’s Executive Institute.”