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The only woman ever selected to be president of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association says she was always something of a rebel -- the first girl in her high school to take shop instead of home economics, the girl who told others that "there are always things worth fighting for."

"There weren't a lot of women in law enforcement, but I really wanted to be a cop -- put bad people in jail, keep the highways safe, help the old lady cross the street," said Mona Dohman, Maple Grove's police chief.

Dohman will become president of the chiefs association in 2009, but remains one of only a handful of high-ranking female law enforcement officials in the Twin Cities. She and two other local officials -- White Bear Lake Police Chief Lynne Teller Bankes and Loni Payne, Anoka County's chief deputy -- don't expect the public safety gender landscape to change any time soon.

"It's still a good ol' boys' network, no matter how you look at it," said Bankes, who recently started her 31st year as a police officer.

"The battles are still the same," said Bankes, "but the numbers are fewer. The Gen-Nexters are not necessarily choosing law enforcement as a goal."

And those who do may have to be patient if they hope to become chiefs. Stacy Altonen spent 20 years in the Minneapolis Police Department before becoming Golden Valley's police chief last year. Carol Sletner became a police officer in Roseville in 1982 before moving up the ranks and becoming that department's chief in 2002. Laura Eastman also spent 15 years working in corrections before moving from sergeant to acting chief to chief of Bayport's police department.

But the balancing act of high-pressured police work and raising a family keeps many women out of law enforcement and ends some careers prematurely. Noted Payne, the first woman to achieve rank in law enforcement in Anoka County: "When the promotions come up, they [women] aren't there to test."

Like Dohman, Payne considers herself a role model for other officers -- male and female -- but also someone "who liked to buck the system" in the 1970s, "when women didn't do that stuff."

The daughter of an auto mechanic, Payne says only partly in jest that she wanted to enter law enforcement because she wanted a job that would allow her to drive fast legally. But she took her profession seriously enough to move from her hometown of Lino Lakes to California and back to Anoka County "because you've got to have women in the rank-and-file and, in my case, I went where they were ready to hire women at the time."

Long journey

Bankes was much the same way. She, too, was looking for an excuse to speed, she said. Mostly, she wanted "an awesome, nontraditional job" and wanted "to put bad guys in jail." But before she could do that, the Crystal native earned a degree at St. Cloud State and attended the FBI National Academy in Virginia. Then she worked in the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office before working in the Fridley Police Department, beginning in 1980.

For Dohman, law enforcement has become a family tradition. She is married to a St. Louis Park police sergeant, Ward Dohman. (They often work different shifts, so their three children, now adolescents, rarely experienced day-care time, she said.) But it was her grandfather who planted the law enforcement seed.

Dohman's grandfather was the town constable of tiny Vesta, a southern Minnesota community between Marshall and Redwood Falls, with a population of fewer than 400 people.

"When people needed help, they'd call Grandpa," she recalled. "He wasn't an expert on anything, but he was the guy who fixes all the problems.

"This is such a rewarding job, although the rewards aren't always tangible," she said. "I remember one Christmas Eve, driving around and looking in windows of people's homes and seeing families that weren't worried about their public safety because they have us protecting them.

"To be that person who helps everybody is the reward of a profession that needs women as much as it needs men. Anything's possible."

No overnight sensation

But what's possible does not happen overnight. The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association was created in 1954 -- meaning that it took 55 years before a woman would be named president.

Dohman, who is serving as the organization's vice president this year, worked as a police officer in Glencoe and Marshall before joining the Maple Grove department in 1984. In Maple Grove, she's been a police officer, investigator, liaison officer, patrol sergeant and patrol captain. She earned three degrees, including a master's from the University of St. Thomas, before graduating from the FBI National Academy.

It's no wonder that when Dohman looks at portraits of former presidents of the chiefs association, she says, "Yes, they're all men, but they're also police officers.

"Becoming president of this organization next year is bittersweet," she said. "I never went into this organization saying, 'I'm a woman and I'm going to make changes here.'

"But this is a change. We're 54 years strong in the Minnesota Chiefs Association and it's taken this long. When I took over as chief in 2001, I remember walking into my first meeting and feeling like I'd moved back 18 years, when I was the only woman in my training group. But the other chiefs welcomed me.

"Man or woman ... in this profession, we all have the same goals."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419