By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Intro: Sergeant Loi Dawkins is a triple minority — a woman born to an Asian mother and Black father, she has spent over 15 years as an officer with the King County Sheriff’s Department.
Having lived her whole life in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, joining the police force was not something Sergeant Loi Dawkins even thought of. “Growing up there as a kid was not easy. The area was ridden with gang violence and there were a lot of problems with the police and community. I saw a lot of things that I didn’t understand and didn’t like. After high school, I went to the University of Washington and I earned my bachelor’s degree in political science. I then worked in Echo Glen Children’s Center, which is a Juvenile Rehabilitation Center and became a counselor there,” she said.
Luckily for the Sheriff’s Department, Dawkins’ brother-in-law, who also grew up in the same area, became a police officer and he planted the idea of her joining the force. “He said, ‘You should think about becoming a police officer’ and I said, ‘No thanks. I don’t want be a police officer, I can’t see myself as one.’ He invited me to come on a ride-along and I thought that might be fun.”
The ride-along gave Dawkins a different perspective on police work. “He was not what I was used to seeing as police. Knowing that he was a good person and seeing him as an officer was cool. I went on a few more ride-alongs with other police officers and thought I could do this,” she said.
The push, however, came when Dawkins told her friends at the university that she was thinking of becoming a police officer. “One of them said, ‘How cool would that be! You could be that officer that people want to talk to. You could be the cool officer.’ That’s where the idea for me came. I could be the officer that I would’ve wanted to see when I was growing up,” she said.
In 2001, Dawkins was hired by the King County Sheriff’s Department. Her career took her to Woodinville, a place she hadn’t heard of. She completed her field training in Shoreline, went back on patrol in Fall City, and then to in Shoreline and Burien, where she handled domestic violence crimes and property crimes and became a detective. Now, 15 years later, she is a sergeant and supervisor of the Court Protection Unit at the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle.
Speaking about how her life shaped her for the role, Dawkins explained, “Where I grew up, my high school was very different. We had a bunch of different cultures, so I wasn’t limited to a particular group of people. In college, I had the opportunity to study, work, and meet with a lot of people from different backgrounds. So, diversity has never been an issue for me. Growing up in a lower income area, I know how to relate to people there and since I went to university, I know how to deal with people who are educated. My life experiences put me in this place. I felt well-prepared for doing this work in King County.”
Having lived in Seattle for 12 years, Dawkins knew what she was going to be dealing with. Being a woman, however, she feels that she put the most pressure on herself. “I felt that I would have to prove myself even more because I remember hearing that there were guys who were like, ‘I hope she’s not going to be one of those women out there.’ My understanding of that was women who can’t handle the job on their own. This was when I first applied. So, I thought I’m going to have to prove that I am capable of doing this job just like anybody else,” Dawkins said.
As far as the skills required for the job, Dawkins knew she had what it took. “I knew there was going to be defensive tactics in the academy. I had a lower level of defensive tactics training while working at the juvenile rehab center. I always knew that how you relate to people makes a huge difference in your job. With my experience of working with incarcerated youth who were sometimes almost 21, I knew that I had the ability to communicate well with people from all walks of life,” she explained.
Dawkins understands the responsibility of her role, but a few instances helped put things in perspective.
Dawkins recalled, “One of my first days on the job was 9/11. That was the realization of what the job entails — you’re literally putting yourself out there to ensure everybody else’s safety first. I thought to myself that there was no turning back, this is what I want to do.”
The second instance she recalls vividly was when she was in Fall City. “I got my car assigned to me and there was nobody sitting next to me anymore. It was my very first week on my own and we had an officer-involved shooting, where Deputy Sheriff Richard Herzog was killed. That was another awakening that there was no turning back,” Dawkins said.
Becoming a police officer is a difficult job and Dawkins’ mother thought she was physically too small, but Dawkins’ father, who retired from the military, was thrilled. “My father wanted at least one of his kids to go into the military but none of us did. When he found out I had applied for the job, he loved the idea. This was as close as it was going to get for any of us.”
When Dawkins passed the academy, her dad pinned her badge on her. Two months later, he passed away and Dawkins almost thought of quitting her job to take care of her mother. “My mother told me there were people out there who needed me. So, I stuck with it.”
Today, Dawkins lives close to her family and raises three girls with her husband. The job gives her the freedom to choose shifts that adjust to her kids’ schedules. “It can be difficult at times. I try to stay focused on my role at work and when I am home, I stay focused on my role at home. When I work overtime, I try to do it during hours that don’t affect my household as badly. ”
In her time with the department, Dawkins has seen people turn to her for a lot of things. “You are supposed to be an expert on everything, whether or not you are. Each day, you are reminded of what it means to do this work. I’m beyond proud to represent women and the under-represented in this field, which for me happens to be Asians and Blacks.
When it comes to racial tensions and the police, Dawkins said, “I can understand concerns on both sides. I have a lot of real conversations with people and it’s tough. At times, there is a huge lack of understanding between both groups. The more positive interactions and communication between the police and community, the more positive change we can bring about. So, I encourage people to interact with one another.”
Dawkins always tells her kids to say hello if they see a police officer. She believes that people fear what they don’t understand and sometimes the only way to combat this fear is having good, positive interactions. “We all have implicit biases against different people. Showing that you’re positive is one of the most important steps in coming to understand one another. Now, many are operating out of fear and people are on the defensive because they are fearful. As a police officer, I don’t have to interact with people only when I show up in an authoritative role. In my spare time, I can take time to have a conversation with someone who is on the elevator with me. Making yourself more approachable is helpful.”
Today, Dawkins balances her role managing different Court Marshals and screeners, making security arrangements for the Courthouse, and helping people achieve career goals. As a recruiter, she helps fulfill people’s lifelong dreams of becoming police officers. She is proud that the King County Sheriff’s Department has a diversity recruiting team.
Dawkins makes appearances at cultural fairs to increase diversity awareness. “I often wonder if it would have made a difference if someone had talked to me when I was in college. For some, it takes a reflection of themselves to be okay with the idea of becoming a police officer. It’s important for us to be able to show that we have women doing this, people with college degrees, and people from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds. It’s important to represent as much of the community as we can,” she said.
Janice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.