Raised among strong female family role models who all worked in the field of healthcare, Dawn Smallwood grew up dreaming of going to medical school to become a pediatrician. “Until organic chemistry had its own ideas!” she laughs.
But Smallwood found an even bigger passion when she entered law enforcement more than three decades ago, moving from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), to the City University of New York (CUNY) public school system, to Stony Brook University, where she was recently promoted to become Assistant Vice President for Campus Safety and Chief of Police — the first female chief in the university’s 65-year history.
Smallwood also has the distinction of being the first woman of color to rise to that position in the 74-year history of the State University of New York (SUNY).
“Having Dawn Smallwood as our new Chief of Police is a huge win,” said Vice President for Enterprise Risk Management and Chief Security Officer Lawrence Zacarese. “She’s enjoyed a diverse and multi-faceted career, including 23 years as a special agent with the FBI, and risen to top ranks of varied public safety roles. She has been a fantastic and key member of my Enterprise Risk Management senior leadership team for the past year-and-a-half. And she represents all we stand for at SBU in terms of diversity, inclusion, representation and equality, at all levels.”
“I do believe representation matters,” Smallwood said. “You believe what you see, and if you don’t see people who look like you in high-level positions, you may not be able to picture yourself there.”
A first-generation college graduate, Smallwood always pictured big things for herself thanks to the constant encouragement and expectations of her mom, aunt and grandmother. “There was never a question if I would enroll in college, it was what avenue I would pursue,” she said. “My road to Stony Brook took a somewhat winding path, but I always knew I wanted to help others, and I’ve found countless opportunities to do that throughout my career.”
Smallwood began her higher ed journey with a BA in psychology, followed by an MA in forensic psychology, then an advanced certificate in emergency management from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
She’s worked for Child Protective Services and advocated for adolescents suffering from physical and sexual abuse. She served as a member of NCIS’ hostage negotiation team. She conducted gang-related criminal investigations and managed active shooter situations for the FBI. She had leadership roles in emergency management, public safety and policy-making decisions for CUNY’s 25 campuses, all before joining Stony Brook in November 2020 as assistant chief of patrol and community relations.
“I loved the fact that the FBI and other agencies are incredibly mission-oriented, with the overarching mission being to protect the public,” Smallwood said. “I truly believe the government doesn’t have a right to tell you how to live your life, unless you choose to endanger the lives of others by going against laws that are in place to keep everyone safe.”
Moving into the higher education sphere, Smallwood applied that same disciplined approach to safeguarding college campus communities.
“A university’s mission is education and elevation; job one in my field is to create an environment where that mission can happen — where students can focus on their studies, faculty on their teaching, and no one has to be afraid to walk to their cars alone at night,” she said. “I want students, for example, to be thinking about the science experiment they just ran, not about running away from someone stalking them.”
Her three main goals are: “one, make sure everyone feels, and is, safe; two, create an environment of trust where everyone knows we’re all on the same team; and three, mentor diverse new officers to help us foster this environment.”
Recognizing that “some students from marginalized areas may not feel comfortable coming to people in uniforms, we’re reinforcing the message that we are your police. We’re here primarily to protect you and the entire campus community from outside threats. My biggest hope is that students walk past a campus police officer with a friendly wave, not a clenched fist.”
“And I want our SBU police officers to recognize that this is a really rewarding career if you’re committed to doing it right,” she continued. “By that I mean helping each other to do their best, create a culture of engagement and respect, and always operate with a strong moral compass and a lot of compassion.”
Smallwood said she is excited to be physically on campus, walking the halls, talking and listening to students. “Stony Brook embodies all the values I care about around diversity, equity, inclusion and equal access to opportunity,” she said. “It’s one of those inspiring environments where individuals have the motivation and tools to thrive, sometimes against all odds. I just want to be part of the vast machine that helps make that happen.”
It’s also the university where her older daughter Shannon graduated with a marine biology degree in 2015. As a law enforcement professional who at first wanted to be a pediatrician, Smallwood encourages her two daughters to “pursue whatever dreams you have. Nothing is impractical or impossible. And if you change your mind along the way, direct your energy toward the new dream and never look back!”
And as a woman of color who has often found herself in male-dominated fields, she advises others, “If you don’t see anyone in that room who looks like you, don’t think you can’t go through that door. You might be the brightest light! I’m now the University Chief of Police. I’ve worked incredibly hard to earn everything I’ve achieved and don’t let anyone stop you from getting the opportunities you deserve. If I can do it, you absolutely can too.”
— Ellen Cooke