Growing up in Connecticut and the South Bronx, Dawn Smallwood dreamed of following her mother and aunt into a career in medicine as a pediatrician.
"But organic chemistry did not agree with that assessment," Smallwood, of West Hempstead, recalled this week.
Smallwood found her passion in law enforcement, moving from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to the FBI to the head of public safety for City University of New York's public school system.
In January, Smallwood took on her biggest challenge: becoming the first female chief of police in Stony Brook University's 65-year history. Smallwood, who doubles as assistant vice president for campus safety, is also the first woman of color to serve as a police chief in the 74-year history of the State University of New York.
"I'm still learning the significance of that," Smallwood said. "I always thought of me as me. When I came to the FBI, I put my head down and kept walking forward, trying to ignore the noise. I did not want to draw attention to myself as a woman or a woman of color. I just didn't want that attention."
But things have changed, Smallwood said, and she now views her post as an opportunity to inspire others to believe anything is possible.
"My daughters remind me that representation is not about me," she said. "Representation is about seeing someone who looks like you doing something you want to do and knowing it's achievable. So I try to keep that at the forefront of my mind. And I'm really trying to embrace that."
Mary Ritayik, commissioner of the New York State University Police, said for females in law enforcement to believe they could crack the glass ceiling, they must first see women at the highest levels of their field.
"I am thrilled to see Dawn Smallwood appointed as the new Stony Brook University chief of police, as she will inspire officers throughout the SUNY system, and provide much needed representation for women of color in law enforcement," Ritayik said. "As the first woman in my position, I can relate to the weight on her shoulders and look forward to working with her to make our students feel safe and our law enforcement officers feel heard."
Medicine or law enforcement?
Smallwood, whose mother was a lab technician at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Connecticut while her father served for years in the Navy, said she was initially torn between careers in medicine and law enforcement.
After college, she worked with autistic children and adults and later conducted abuse investigations for Child Protective Services. She spent five years with NCIS on its hostage negotiation team before moving to the FBI, initially working for a division focused on civil rights and exploitation of children.
During her 23 years with the Bureau, Smallwood would investigate violent gangs, terrorism after Sept. 11, crimes on the high seas and the crash of Flight 800 off Long Island.
At the time, Smallwood, a married mother of two — including a daughter who graduated from Stony Brook — said there were few women of color in her role and some colleagues questioned, often in unspoken ways, whether she earned her spot.
"There were certainly people who wondered why I was there," she said. "Did I belong or did I take someone else's seat? I tried to ignore that and surrounded myself with people who supported me and saw me as their equal and saw me as their partners."
Smallwood left the FBI is 2014 and went to CUNY as the director of public safety in charge of administration and emergency management. She would spend six years in the post before joining Stony Brook in November 2020 as assistant chief of patrol and community relations.
Perfect fit for chief
Lawrence Zacarese, Stony Brook's chief security officer and vice president for enterprise risk management, said Smallwood's broad background made her a perfect fit for chief of police.
"Stony Brook is a big complicated place with 50,000 people here and security and safety is something we take very seriously," Zacarese said. "And I knew she felt the same way."
Smallwood manages a 170-person fully accredited police force — including 63 sworn law enforcement officers — that patrols the campus and provides security at Stony Brook University Hospital. Almost 20% of the sworn officers are women and nearly 16% are minorities, the school said.
At more than 1,000 acres, and with its own Long Island Rail Road stop, Zacarese says Stony Brook is "more of a small city than a traditional college. And with that comes security concerns at a place that has tremendous amount of critical infrastructure."
Beyond keeping Stony Brook secure, Smallwood wants to engender a new relationship between police and students, particularly those from marginalized communities who may not have always had positive relations with law enforcement.
"I really want students, faculty and staff to feel like we are their police," said Smallwood, who has hosted town halls with students and events focused on traffic safety. "We're here to create a safe environment for them to do the work of the campus. The work of education. The work of learning. The work of teaching. I want them to feel like we're part of this community."