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Christine Dunning Hired as Wilmington’s First Female Police Chief, Proves She Can Handle the Heat

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It’s May 2012, in Rockford Park, during the Wilmington Flower Market. Mayoral candidate Dennis P. Williams is doing the politics thing, greeting as many people as he can, telling all who will listen that, if he’s elected, his strategy for fighting crime will include reaching outside the city to find a leader for the Wilmington Police Department.

One prospective voter, a city police captain ready to start a shift, runs into Williams. She’s not feeling his strategy.

The captain is Christine Dunning.

“I told him I didn’t think it would be a good idea, and it would take a long time for an outsider to learn the department,” Dunning says. “There are times when you have to go outside—like if there is a lot of corruption and you have to clean house—but this is not one of those times.”

Dunning’s words had no impact on Williams’ campaign. He stuck to his guns through the Sept. 11 primary, when he vanquished four Democratic rivals for the nomination, and beyond the Nov. 6 election, in which he faced a token write-in campaign from Republican Kevin Melloy.

“I respect her for that,” Williams says, recalling the Flower Market meeting. “That’s boldness. She’s honest, forthright. She laid it all on the line.”

So the mayor-elect changed his mind. The week after Thanksgiving, he asked Dunning to serve as chief of police, making her the first woman to hold the position.

“I knew Christine from my years on the police department,” Williams says. “When I was going through my folders of all the people I was looking at, I kept coming back to her. [It’s] 4 or 5 in the morning, and I said, ‘You know what? This is it.’ I called her up the next day and offered her the position.”

Williams’ reversal stunned many. Dunning isn’t flashy. She isn’t known for her PR skills. But she’s a dedicated cop with serious street cred.

“She is a very well-rounded police officer, very well-liked,” says Michael R. Brown, the only Republican on City Council and chair of its Public Safety Committee. He worked with Dunning when he was a civilian youth intervention specialist in the police department. “She treated everybody fairly—on the street, inside the police station,” he says.

“She has what it takes,” says Michael Lawson, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1, the city police union. “She’s not afraid to speak her mind.”

“There’s no doubt that she’s tough,” says Capt. Clayton Smith, commander of the organized crime and vice division.

Courage, boldness and fairness may be Dunning’s defining characteristics, but they are just part of what she brings to the job.

 

Her Past

Dunning, who turns 51 on June 7, is a Wilmington native. She grew up in Union Park Gardens and attended the old St. Thomas Elementary School and Padua Academy. She learned about the city and its neighborhoods in her youth, volunteering and doing community service work at the Fraim Boys & Girls Club, giving swimming and CPR lessons for the Red Cross and serving as a candy-striper at the Little Sisters of the Poor home when it was still on Bancroft Parkway.

As Dunning got around the city, she got to know several police officers and took an interest in their work, but not enough to make it her first career choice. At the University of Delaware, she took some criminal justice classes but majored in geography and  focused on conservation and environmental topics. She joined the Army ROTC, but decided she wasn’t ready to commit to four years of active duty. She thought she’d like to work with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control—“environmental permits and the like,” she says.

But the pieces didn’t quite fit together. “You have your aspirations,” Dunning says, “but you don’t necessarily have the opportunity to pursue your career path.”

After graduating in 1984, she took a job in retail, but tired of it after a year. She felt the tug of community service, relished the structure that ROTC had instilled in her, and took a cue from her father, a command sergeant major in the National Guard Reserve. Other relatives had also worked in public safety and health. She joined the Wilmington Police Department and received her badge in October 1986.

Dunning’s police service has been marked by diverse assignments and promotions that came steadily, though not as fast as she might have liked.
After starting as a patrol officer, she moved into community policing, pounding a beat in a drug-infested East Side neighborhood, riding a bicycle on patrol in Riverside, visiting schools through the Officer Friendly program and helping develop Neighborhood Watch community groups. She served as public information officer before moving into criminal investigations, uniformed services and then back and forth between criminal investigations and human resources. She was promoted to sergeant in 1993, lieutenant in 1998 and captain in 2010.

“She takes pride in everything she does,” says Inspector Victor Ayala, Dunning’s supervisor in the community policing unit in the early 1990s. “She is a truly professional officer.”

As their paths crossed over the years, Ayala observed that “(Dunning) was stuck as a lieutenant for a long time, but you couldn’t tell by her work. Nothing changed. She just worked twice as hard.”

Some officers who are denied promotions file grievances and lawsuits, Inspector Bobby Cummings says, but Dunning “never wavered. She didn’t complain. She did her job until her opportunity came.”

“I spent 12, 13 years as a lieutenant,” Dunning says. “Yes, there were times when I thought I was bypassed, but everything gets narrower and narrower as you move up through an organization.”

Lorraine Ignudo, the police department’s fiscal administrator, says Dunning has always been extremely well-organized. “When she was expecting her first child, Dunning was meticulous about every little detail she had planned out for her maternity leave,” Ignudo recalls.

Dunning’s daughter Erin, 20, is a student at Delaware College of Art and Design. Her son Lee, 16, attends Delaware Military Academy. Dunning also has a stepdaughter in Idaho. “She was always there for them, but she has never missed a stroke at work,” Ignudo says.

 

The Challenges

Given her diverse experiences, the challenges Dunning faced in advancing her career and her seven years in the human resources division, it’s not surprising that she places “restoring professionalism” at the top of her goals for the department.

To accomplish that, she wants officers to move around the department to broaden their experiences and knowledge—not just remain in a unit they like year after year.

“There are some generational issues” among veteran members of the force, she says. “Some only want to do traffic, some don’t want to supervise.” Such attitudes make it harder for younger officers to gain exposure to the variety of assignments they should have as they try to move into leadership roles. The slow economy of the last several years has compounded the problem, she says, since officers with 20 years of service are now more likely to stay on the job rather than retire and start a second career.

“Within a quasi-military organization, it can be hard to implement change,” Dunning says, but she and her top assistants, Cummings and Ayala, are moving in that direction through improved communications and increased collaboration.

“We’re including not only the command staff, but also the rank and file, in discussing plans for improvement,” Cummings says. “Officers on the street may not be making the big decisions, but they feel they are a part of the process.”

Fighting crime, however, is the department’s top priority. Quoting her predecessor, Chief Michael Szczerba, Dunning notes that “you can’t arrest yourself out of this problem,” and says that she and the mayor intend to “attack the crime issue from all different angles.”

Is She Tough Enough?

Dunning needs to put her money where her mouth is. But she can handle the street. Take the events of March 14, 1991, for example.

Tom Monahan, a retired master sergeant, remembers that day well. He was sitting at his desk in the research and planning department when the call came in. It’s another bank robbery, this time at the Wilmington Trust branch on Union Street near Pennsylvania Avenue. Monahan jumps from his desk, races down to the parking lot behind the old Public Building on Rodney Square and sprints into a patrol car. Dunning joins him. So do two other officers.

By the time they reach the crime scene, the four robbers have fled, leading other officers on a chase through the Highlands and Rockford Park before doubling back and crashing their getaway car into a van at Pennsylvania Avenue and Clayton Street. The robbers jump out of the car, split into pairs and attempt to flee.

 

A gunfight with two suspects breaks out in the parking lot of the office building on the southeast corner of Pennsylvania and Clayton. Monahan takes a bullet in the knee. Seeking cover behind a parked car, he watches one robber climb a stockade fence and head into yards behind the houses on Clayton Street. The second robber tries to follow, but loses his grip on the fence on the cold and rainy day. He turns and points his gun toward the officers.
“It was clear the guy was not going to give up,” Monahan recalls. “[Dunning] ran up toward him and shouted, ‘I told you to put it down.’ He didn’t—and she put one right in his head. She showed more courage that day than in most of the cops I’ve ever seen.”

Williams, now Wilmington’s mayor, describes the scene as if he had been there himself. “He spun on her, there was a shootout,” he says, rising from behind his desk and striding across the room to approximate the distance between Dunning and the robber when she pulled the trigger. “And she won, so I take my hat off to her. I know she can make very difficult decisions. And that’s why I trust her in this position.”

Can They Make Wilmington Safer?

Both Dunning and Williams speak about “aggressive policing,” but there’s more to the concept than putting more officers on the streets, such as targeting the most serious offenders, following up quickly on nuisance complaints, having more eyes looking out for drug deals, and breaking up groups congregating on street corners after dark.

Another piece of this strategy, Dunning says, is “situational policing,” recognizing that every neighborhood is unique, with different concerns and varied levels of support for the police. Within each community, she says, the goal is to create “a safe neighborhood” by building trust and cooperation between residents and police.

Looking more broadly, Dunning and Williams say, creating safe neighborhoods requires teamwork with other city agencies—better work by Licensing and Inspections in pursuing code violations at vacant or rundown properties where drug dealers do business, and more Parks and Recreation programs to keep kids busy and off the streets. It also means building relationships with the state Department of Corrections to help individuals released from prison reconnect successfully in their communities and with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to link illegal firearms with unsolved crimes.

As Dunning moves forward, her biggest challenge may well be living up to high expectations. In his inaugural address in January, Williams promised to make a dent in violent crime within six months and asserted that, within two years, “you won’t even think it’s the same city.”

Brown, the councilman, doubts that goal can be achieved. “In my opinion,” he says, “the mayor has already thrown her under the bus.”

Williams has no doubt he’s made the right choice. “I support her 150 percent,” he says. “Christine is a superstar.”

Dunning lacks flamboyance—that’s for sure. But when you consider her experience in virtually every area of the Police Department, as well as her passion for Wilmington, Williams’ choice seems logical. Dunning hasn’t offered any unique proposals yet, in terms of handling Wilmington’s alarming homicide stats—but she is well-equipped to serve a city that needs help—serious help.

Dunning points out that fighting crime is not just her responsibility, or that of the police force. It’s a mission that involves the entire community. “We all have to step up to the plate,” she says.

That’s a statement we’ve heard before—from many a Wilmington official. The real question is, will Dunning be the one who truly inspires the community to get involved?  


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