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Fulfilling a promise - Police chief reflects on his career
Jan. 9, 2019

In 1973, a young Jim Dunlap — then a newly minted sergeant with the Michigan State University Police Department — made a promise.

Martin Brown, a 20-year-old student from Midland, had been attacked on campus in March and later succumbed to his injuries. Dunlap, the lead investigator on the case who retired last month as MSU’s police chief after nearly 50 years of service in the department, quickly began working the case.

Speaking to Brown’s family members, Dunlap could feel their pain and sense of loss. He remembers looking in the eyes of Brown’s parents and promising them the people who killed their son would be brought to justice. Recognizing it may have been foolish — sometimes cases go unsolved no matter how hard police work — he hoped that promise would bring them some level of comfort.

Then, as can happen in criminal cases, days went by without an arrest. Months. Years.

Accidental calling

Born in the southern Michigan town of Adrian, Jim Dunlap never had any dreams of becoming a cop, let alone a chief for a campus police department. He was going to be a doctor.

After attending Howe Military Academy across the border in northern Indiana, Dunlap studied pre-med at Ohio’s John Carroll University. But despite his academic success, he began to realize that becoming a doctor required more than just good grades: Medical school was expensive.

So, at 20 years old, Dunlap joined the MSU Police Department in 1969, graduating from the police academy the next year. He remembers one shift supervisor questioning whether he was old enough to be a cop since he couldn’t go out with fellow officers for a beer after the shift ended.

“I was used to staying up late at night, and I found a job where I could do that and get paid,” Dunlap says. “There was never any real intention to make this my career.”

That was until the killing of Martin Brown in 1973.

Keeping a promise

The inability to make an arrest in Brown’s case always remained on Dunlap’s mind. He had just been promoted to sergeant in 1973 when Brown was killed and moved up the ranks from there: lieutenant in 1979, captain in 1984, deputy chief in 1987 and assistant chief in 1999.

Then, in 2002, Dunlap became just the fourth police chief at MSU in more than 70 years. The days of leading investigations were behind him, but he had never forgotten the Brown case — and his promise. It drove him as his job became his career.

Shortly after becoming chief, Dunlap established the department’s cold case unit, specifically focused on unsolved homicides. Detectives and officers reviewed reports and re-examined evidence in light of new technology.

One of the cases officers looked at was the Brown homicide. It took a few more years, but in October 2005, two men were arrested. Two years later, they were both convicted and sentenced to decades in prison.

After nearly 35 years, Dunlap was able to fulfill his promise to the Brown family.

Education is key

One constant for Dunlap in the first half of his career was former police chief Richard Bernitt, who led the department from 1960 to 1987.

“Early in my career, he began to serve as my mentor,” Dunlap says. “He pushed me, constantly telling me I could do a better job. He put a big premium on education, and that stuck with me.”

MSU was one of the first police departments to require all officers to have at least a four-degree, and continuing that education via training is vital as well.

“Raised in a military background, the whole idea was you needed to be the best at what you do, and you can’t do that unless you are provided opportunities,” Dunlap says. “My philosophy is to encourage people to stay, train them well and give them resources and opportunities.”

At MSU, those opportunities are abundant. The department under Dunlap has created and grown many distinctive resources, such as a renowned digital forensics team, a special victims unit, a virtual reality firearms simulator and one of the only K-9 units in the state to employ vapor wake dogs, trained to detect explosives. In 2017, MSU became one of only a handful of higher education institutions accredited in emergency planning.

“Jim was one of the best hires I ever made,” says Fred Poston, former vice president for finance and operations who served as the chief’s boss for 11 years. “People responded to him. He made it a priority to spend time and money to educate and prepare his folks.

“You need someone in that role who is strong enough to lead and diplomatic enough to get things done without alienating anyone; Jim was exceptional in that regard.”

Closing key cases

At MSU, the police department — with 120 members — has grown into one of the largest forces in the state. And it is the available resources and opportunities that has allowed the department to not only retain so many of its employees but also tackle several very complex cases.

Dave Trexler served on the MSU force for 34 years, retiring in December 2017. For his final 15 years, he was the deputy chief, serving as Dunlap’s No. 2.

“Jim was a visionary, a strategic leader,” Trexler says. “He could always see five steps ahead. I’d be looking at a decision we had to make, and he’d be looking years down the road as to how that would affect the department.”

Trexler points to several high-profile cases the department was able to close during Dunlap’s tenure, from the Brown homicide to the Dec. 31, 1999, bombing at Agriculture Hall to the recent Larry Nassar case.

“These were very difficult cases, where we had to pull resources from across the department to get the work done,” he says. “Jim always made sure we had the right people in the right spots to make that happen.”

Looking back at the Nassar sexual abuse case, one of the most horrific he’s ever seen, Dunlap also feels a sense of pride as to how his department, and the community, came together.

“We had 22 officers assigned to that case. That’s all they worked on for two years,” he says. “But we also had digital forensic analysts, communications specialists, civilians helping with record keeping and so on. There were so many unsung heroes.”

One of those officers who helped on the Nassar case, Deputy Chief Kelly Roudebush, replaced Dunlap as chief Jan. 1. She is only the fifth chief in MSU Police history. That continuity across the department, along with the ample opportunities afforded within, is what makes MSU a destination spot for officers.

And that’s what Dunlap is most proud of.

“What is unique about MSU is how much people really care about where they work and who they serve,” Dunlap says. “With our student population, we have a very transient community. Our officers strive to make them not only safe, but welcome. That sense of community is why people decide to stay with our department.”

Jim Dunlap

This profile was published originally in InsideMSU.

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