Officer Jacki: Dawson finds niche in school resource position
WORTHINGTON -- After more than six years working as a full-time police officer, Jacki Dawson is accustomed to the weight of the duty belt, vest and boots that she dons every day as part of her uniform. But that 30 pounds of gear is a source of constant fascination to the young people she encounters.
"I'm so used to it," she said. "I forget it's so interesting to other people. It's just part of my uniform, and I'm particular about where everything goes."
Dawson recently began her new Worthington Police Department assignment -- school resource officer for District 518 -- and she has already answered a lot of curious questions about the gun, handcuffs, Taser and other implements that hang on the duty belt around her waist since school started a few weeks ago.
"I have kids constantly asking about them, and I'll explain what they are, but they don't touch," she said. "They always want me to handcuff them. ... They love the Taser. I'll take it out and spark test it and explain that it's electricity. I try not to focus on the gun. I try to make it educational."
Her interest in law enforcement was sparked during her own educational experience while growing up in Eden Prairie.
"I wanted to be an actress until my senior year of high school," she explained. "That's when I took a class, Personal Business and Law, and then when I got to college, I realized this is what I want to be. Actually, I wanted to be a homicide detective. I did an internship in the homicide department in Minneapolis. Now, there are days when I forget I wanted to be a homicide detective because I love police work so much."
Dawson's path to becoming a peace officer began with a four-year degree in criminal justice from St. Cloud State University. She completed her skills training at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. She worked as a community service officer in Richfield -- not a sworn police position, but good experience, she noted -- before accepting her first job as a sworn peace officer with the WPD. After living her whole life in the metro area, moving to Greater Minnesota was quite a change.
"I experienced a bit of culture shock. I think I knew one person in the whole town," she recalled. "I started in March of '06 and there were 12 feet of snow on the ground. On my first day as an officer, I got picked up by one of my supervisors in his personal vehicle, a Suburban, because his squad got stuck in his driveway, and he was wearing one of those fur hats with the ear flaps on it. It was like a scene out of 'Fargo.' We spent the whole day driving around picking up hospital crew and dispatchers."
In the six years since, Dawson has "grown to love Worthington."
"I have a life here now," she said. "I bought a house, have a fiancé, kids. I know lots of people. I feel like I fit here. It took a couple of years for that to happen."
She and fiancé Cory Bomgaars are planning a May 2013 wedding, and together they are raising his sons -- one who lives with them full-time and two who visit on weekends.
When former school resource officer Bob Fritz announced his plan to retire after the last school year, Dawson campaigned to assume the SRO duties.
"I've always loved kids, working with kids and education, but law enforcement is my passion," she explained. "When I heard Officer Fritz was retiring, I thought it would be a perfect mix of law enforcement and education. ... It's the perfect combination of the things I love to do."
The SRO is actually a tri-fold position, Dawson explained. She serves as a liaison between the educational system and law enforcement, having a daily presence in the school system. She is also in charge of the DARE -- Drug Abuse Resistance Education -- program, a police officer-led series of classroom lessons that teaches children from kindergarten through 12th grade how to resist peer pressure and live productive drug and violence-free lives.
"The DARE component is a huge commitment," she said. "It's not a once-a week thing."
Additionally, Dawson is a juvenile investigator, an active participant in any cases involving juveniles, particularly child protection cases.
"There are other things you do, also," she added. "I still like to make traffic stops, show up on calls as backup. I don't want to lose those skills."
For the most part, Dawson's daily routine coincides with the school schedule. She begins her day by checking out the school bus stops.
"I'll follow some buses to make sure they are being safe," she said. "I'll wave to kids at the bus stop. I think it's nice for them to see an officer there. Just last week, I was following a bus, and there was a kid having trouble getting on the bus, wouldn't let mom get off the bus. So I took mom's place. Because I was there, I was able to assist."
Dawson isn't the only one monitoring the "school zones" every morning. All the WPD patrol officers have a presence at the bus stops, parking lots and crossing areas each morning, she explained. But Dawson takes the law enforcement presence into the school halls, too.
"I try to make it to every school at least once a day," she said. "Since there are five schools, that could take up my whole day if I let it. A lot of times I'll try to be at one of the schools for breakfast, visit with the kids, be present. After school begins, I'll deal with any issues that might come up, talk with the students about bullying, any fights that might happen, not necessarily crimes. Teachers email me constantly about doing presentations, not just for the students, but for the staff as well."
While much of her job entails such problem-solving, the intent of the SRO position is to develop a rapport with students.
"We want to break down the stigma that every time a uniformed officer walks into a school something bad happens," Dawson explained, "that the police being there is not a negative thing. Again at lunch, I try to be at one school, and I switch it up every day. I don't want to be predictable. They never know when I'm going to show up.
"I think the misconception is that I just hang out in the schools, but there's a lot more going on than that," she continued. "I'm a tool to be utilized by the administration, the parents, the students. I'm the go-to person if something happens in the school or around the school. By having me as a contact person, we can build a rapport with the students, the staff, the faculty."
Even though she's only been working directly with the students for a few weeks, Dawson is already getting recognized outside the school walls. She's also making a concerted effort to know kids' names, although she knows it's an insurmountable task, given the numbers in the District 518 schools.
"I have a couple groups of students that I make them stand in the same order every day so I can remember their names," Dawson explained. "They always try to mix me up. But it amazes me how many kids know me, even when I'm in my street clothes with my hair down. I want to put myself out there. A lot of kids have had bad experiences with the police department, whether culturally or for one reason or another. They make us into the bad guys, and my job is to try to convince kids otherwise. Then, after the kids and I build a rapport, I can bring in other officers. They need to know that we're there to help. You want them to trust you, be able to trust you, and break down those barriers."
For Dawson, one of the best parts of her new post is having regular hours so that she's able to have regular meals with her family and participate in community activities outside of her job. With her wedding date in mind, she takes Zumba exercise classes several times each week.
"I'm a real person," she asserted. "Being a peace officer is my job, and it doesn't necessarily define who I am. I'm a pretty normal person. I cook dinner for my family and do normal stuff. I did shift work for 10 years; it's part of the job, but it does wear on you, and as a newer officer you do get bounced around. If you're low on the totem pole, you fill in wherever you are needed. So I'm absolutely loving these new hours. It's nice to have a normal schedule and more consistent lifestyle. But with that comes more responsibility, too."
One part of her previous responsibilities that Dawson won't relinquish is organizing the Cop on Top fundraiser for the Special Olympics. Having coached Special Olympics as an adolescent, it's a cause that is near and dear to her heart. Over the past two years, she has spearheaded the effort that raised about $16,000, and next year she's set a goal of $10,000. During the local fundraiser, a local police officer spends time on top of the local Hy-Vee Food Store building to garner donations.
"I also do polar plunges every year," Dawson said, referring to a statewide law enforcement event during which officers jump into the water of an ice-covered lake to raise money for Special Olympics. "Every year I swear it's going to be the last one, but then I do it again."
The event that Dawson is currently anticipating is next weekend's King Turkey Day Parade. As the new school resource officer, she will make her first foray down the parade route with the students who graduated last year from the DARE program.
"It's keeping me busy, and I'm learning a lot," she said about being the SRO. "It's so different from patrol, a whole new ballgame really. It's very fun and very rewarding."