DOWAGIAC — As he prepares to retire at the end of this month, Tom Atkinson can look back at a long and fulfilling career in law enforcement that spans nearly five decades.
Atkinson spent nearly 26 years with the Cass County Sheriff’s Department, retiring as a captain and commander of the Major Crimes Task Force. He followed that with 17 years in his hometown of Dowagiac, where he was the police chief for 14 years and the public safety director for three years.
He has spent the past six years at Southwestern Michigan College as the chief of staff to President David Mathews, overseeing campus safety and security upgrades on the college’s two campuses in Dowagiac and Niles.
In an interview last week with The Herald-Palladium, Atkinson said he never really set out to be a police officer. “I really wanted to be a wildlife biologist or conservation officer,” he said. “I went into law enforcement as a way to make money so I could go to school.”
Despite that early resolve to move on from police work to another career, he found he liked the work especially when he became a detective and was more involved with investigations. He also enjoyed the camaraderie he found with fellow officers and the opportunities he had to make a difference in people’s lives.
“It’s a great profession,” he said. “I loved being a police officer, I recommend it to everybody.”
His years with the sheriff’s department included getting the chance to graduate from the National FBI Academy in Quantico in 1984 and working with people like now retired Cass County Sheriff Joe Underwood.
“Joe was an officer in Dowagiac and came to work for the sheriff’s department,” Atkinson said. “We were partners for a long time.”
He retired from the sheriff’s department when he had the chance to be the chief in Dowagiac.
Atkinson has seen a lot of changes in law enforcement over the years.
“The changes have been incredible and technology is a lot of it,” he said. “In 1972, we didn’t have DNA testing like we do now, that’s why we’re seeing some cold cases solved. The education has changed too and I was fortunate to be able to graduate from specialized schools.”
He said he’s proud of all he was able to do over the years, from helping form the Major Crimes Task Force and drug enforcement team to being a pioneer in community policing efforts. “The key in anything is to build good relationships,” he said. “If people trust you, you get a lot further than being adversarial.”
He followed that philosophy when he became the Dowagiac police chief.
“Relations with the African American community were not that great,” he said. “I went to the churches and door to door in the neighborhoods and I encouraged my officers to interact with the community. We were able to re-establish trust in the police department.”
At SMC, Atkinson said he’s worked to fulfill the mission set down for him to make the campus safer for students, faculty and visitors.
They have armed security and evening sheriff department patrols at both campuses and have provided emergency training and improved campus wide notifications about threats and severe weather.
“We have 2,000 people here at SMC and three dorms,” he said. “We have a camera system in place so we can watch and lock down the buildings. We’ve put a 9-1-1 panic button application on people’s cell phones. We can broadcast texts and respond to situations at the same time as the police.”
In retirement, Atkinson plans to spend more time with his family including his wife, Cass Probate Judge Susan Dobrich, his two daughters, his grandchildren and his siblings. He also wants to stay involved in the community where he already serves on the United Way and Intermediate School District boards.