Campus Closeup: Len Dawson

When Len Dawson retired after 25 years with the Michigan State Police, his career in law enforcement didn’t end; it just veered in a new direction. As training coordinator for NMU’s Public Safety Institute, Dawson oversees the largest of 21 regional academies in the state that certify young recruits for future police work. He also maintains contact with former colleagues by organizing in-service training programs for a consortium of U.P. departments and agencies.

“The thing I missed most after retiring wasn’t the job itself, but the camaraderie,” he said.  “This position allows me to still enjoy some of that because I get to see the guys I worked with and stay in the loop of area law enforcement.”

Technology has changed the profession significantly in recent years. Dawson spent the bulk of his career as a certified traffic crash reconstructionist. He would sketch accident scenes on paper, documenting such visual clues as vehicle damage and skid marks to determine the angle of impact and apply a formula to calculate the speed the vehicles were traveling. Officers have since moved from primitive pencil drawings to computer-assisted design (CAD) programs with 3D animations.

A speeding violation shortly after obtaining his license at 16 proved to be the ticket to Dawson’s police career. He was behind the wheel of his friend’s sports car on I-75 as they returned to their native Detroit area from a camping trip up north.

“I got pulled over by a state trooper for going too fast,” Dawson recalled. “When he came to the driver’s window, I remember him being a big guy, but I was impressed by how calm, nice and polite he was. He treated us so fairly. I still got a ticket, but when he left to go back to the squad car, I told my friend, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

Dawson took an indirect route, first working in construction with his future father-in-law after high school and then serving as a pharmacy technician with William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. His experience dispensing medications was valuable to his police work. Dawson could readily identify narcotics, much to the chagrin of criminals who tried to pass off their pills as over-the-counter headache remedies.

He recalls some intense situations, such as being shot at twice by an armed robbery suspect after a car chase stalled in traffic in downtown Marquette. Unscathed, Dawson blew out the teenager's rear tire. It was the only time he ever fired his service weapon on duty. There were also humorous moments. Dawson laughs at the memory of his first solo patrol, when he pulled over a Michigan Tech student who was speeding on M-28 on her way home for the summer.

“I was chewing gum and I started to say, ‘I need to see your license, registration and’…When I got to ‘proof of insurance,’ my gum went flying out of my mouth and into her lap. I actually reached in and picked it up, then just said a quick “slow down” and went back to my squad car. I was pretty embarrassed and I’m sure she’s still telling people how she got out of that ticket.”

Now Dawson coordinates logistics for the NMU Regional Police Academy. He schedules informational meetings for prospective recruits, distributes packets with medical forms and other required paperwork, ensures that they pass the state-mandated physical agility and reading/writing entrance exams, conducts formal interviews with those who commit to attend and helps them order uniforms. The process begins each September—shortly after the previous academy’s August graduation—and continues until the new class begins in May. This summer’s class of 26 is larger than average. He attributes that in part to the economy.

Dawson’s wife, Mary, travels extensively for her job with FEMA. When they can spend time together, the couple enjoys fishing, camping and spending time with their daughter in Marquette and their son and granddaughter in Massachusetts.


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Updated: July 17, 2009

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