Amid tension and national tumult, Lenexa’s new police chief aims to build trust in law enforcement

Lenexa Police Chief Dawn Layman said she plans to continue instilling a culture of professionalism and transparency in the police department. She hopes to build community trust in law enforcement in general by reaching one person at a time, a philosophy she adopted from a colleague.

Leaning over the desk of her new office at headquarters, Lenexa Police Chief Dawn Layman looked darkly up at the television.

She has only been police chief for a few weeks now. Still, the seasoned law enforcement officer with 31 years of experience — with 27 of those coming in Lenexa — watched with disappointment last Wednesday as the siege at the U.S. Capitol unfolded before her eyes.

“You see this?” Layman asked, shaking her head as the screen depicted Capitol Police officers clashing with pro-Trump supporters. “Look at the White House today; there is such a division across the country.”

It has been a challenging and tumultuous year as tensions grow nationwide across political and racial lines, drawing law enforcement into the mix. But Layman said she and their team of about 100 sworn officers — under previous leadership by Chief Tom Hongslo, who retired in December — already work to meet those challenges by trying to instill a culture of transparency, public engagement and community values.

In fact, Layman gets the credit for pushing to disclose Hongslo’s internal message to police officers last summer denouncing the force used against George Floyd in Minneapolis. She sees this as one of many opportunities to provide dialogue and education for the mutual benefit and knowledge of both the community and police officers.

“I have a colleague; in their department, he calls it ‘one by one,’” Layman said. “I would like to be hopeful, and I think, actually, engaging in this one-by-one philosophy, it is going to take that level of effort to build that trust.

“Out of every tragedy, there’s always learning and some positive things that can come of that. But at the same time, the pendulum swings the other way and we have these knee-jerk reactions and legislative changes that aren’t thought out,” she added, alluding to calls to defund police agencies. “That causes me great concern.”

‘No sweeping changes’

No sweeping changes are coming for the Lenexa Police Department, but the station may get a comfort dog soon as well as wellness checks for sworn officers.

For Layman’s part, “no sweeping changes” are coming for the Lenexa Police Department. However, officers can expect some minor leadership style shifts and may be handed a book or two to read; she’s got multiple copies of “The Fred Factor” by Mark Sanborn in her office.

Instead, she wants to focus on furthering outreach and community policing efforts. That’s on top of the Citizens Police Academy, the Use of Force Workshop, and the department’s response to the 8 Can’t Wait campaign last summer, which called for 8 policy reforms in law enforcement practices across the county, including a ban on chokeholds and more comprehensive reporting of departments’ use of force.

Some of those efforts are already underway, Layman says.

For instance, Pastor Eric Cobbins facilitated bias-based training for half of Lenexa Police officers following a church rally over the summer. (The other half may go through training once health conditions make gathering in large groups safer.)

In the meantime, Layman says she also plans to continue Hongslo’s work to get annual wellness checks for police officers and their mental health, and perhaps get a comfort dog to have around the police station.

‘Glad I’m not the first’

As the city’s fourth ever police chief, Layman is actually not the first woman to hold this position in the city’s relatively short history. In fact, she was hired in 1993 by Chief Ellen Hanson, who takes that credit for being the first woman in that role.

“I think that’s even a bigger point, and something that I’m probably even more proud of than being the first,” Layman said. “I’m glad I’m not the first. It says something. Is there a lot more to do? Absolutely. Women do bring attributes to this job that are very beneficial.”

Still, Layman’s role is unique. Only 12% of police officers are women, according to FBI data. Layman estimates a much smaller percentage — maybe only 1-2% — are in leadership positions.

She remains involved as an early member of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives, an organization co-founded by Hanson and headquartered in Lenexa.

“It was inspiring to be with these women that were chiefs of police, deputy chiefs, in command,” she said of her first conference in 1995. “That’s obviously something that’s stuck with me throughout my career.”

‘You have to see to be’

Layman (left) is the second woman to become Lenexa’s police chief. She was hired by Chief Ellen Hanson in the 1990s. Above, Layman meets with Capt. Todd Seay in his office.

Growing up in the 1970s with a father in law enforcement, Layman saw very few women in the profession. Then one day, she got in a fender bender and a female police officer came on the scene to help her. That’s when she knew she wanted to go into law enforcement.

“I’m a big believer in you have to see to be,” she said.  “I’m not going to say I never had any issues. I got along very well with the people I worked with, but I do know that I felt just like being a minority, that I needed to do things twice as good as my counterparts. It wasn’t anything negative; I just wanted to be the best, and I think I earned their respect.”

Over the years, she’s proud of working many difficult cases, including her involvement on the directed patrol unit and also the department’s collaborative efforts to capture and arrest the serial killer John Robinson.

“My philosophy is, we come in contact with people, sometimes it may only be for a short time … you’re making a difference in that person’s life,” she said. “You may not know it in that moment. But for them, however brief a contact may be, knowing that they’re making a difference, it’s impactful.”

Meanwhile, Layman takes up the helm at a time when the Lenexa Police Department and city are making plans to build a new public safety complex near Prairie Star Parkway and Britton Road.

That project is on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic. But for now, Layman says she is “honored and humbled” to be in her new position.

“I work with some of the best men and women in law enforcement… and I’m very proud of the people that work here,” Layman said. “I think we do a great job, and we do the right things for the right reasons. I want people to be happy working here, enjoy working here, and I think they are, and that translates into our exceptional service that we provide to each other and to the community.”