“Powerful Role Model for Young Women”
January 2018 | Written by Sam Stites | Lake Oswego Review
Air Force veteran Dawn Pecoraro took a chance on law enforcement and built a successful career in a male-dominated field.
Dawn Pecoraro has thick skin, and that’s certainly served her well in her working life. The 14-year veteran of the Lake Oswego Police Department has made a career out of being a woman in male-dominated fields, and it all began when she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force at age 17.
The Portland native and 1985 graduate of David Douglas High School wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do after finishing school, but a social studies teacher she admired had been in the Air Force and spoke highly of his time as an airman.
“I thought about it, and I really wanted to travel, to get away from Portland and go see some things, to gain money for college — all those things,” Pecoraro says. “It was patriotism also. That sort of thing comes from within, even though I wasn’t really exposed to the military.”
After completing basic training, an aptitude test ushered Pecoraro into a job as a crew chief. She was sent to upstate New York to work as a mechanic on KC-135 mid-air refueling jets. She says she enjoyed the role, and found that she was particularly good at navigating her way as a woman in the male-dominated field. But not long after arriving in New York, Pecoraro was transferred to Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash. There she met her first husband and, when her four-year stint in the Air Force was up, she decided to leave the military. She married and had two boys, Nico and Race, and spent 15 years in Spokane working different clerical positions and raising her family.
She changed direction again in her mid-30s, though, after her first marriage ended. Pecoraro says she knew if she didn’t make a career change then and there, she might not be afforded another opportunity down the road.
And so she took a leap of faith. In 2002, she applied for a position with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. After completing a standardized entry exam, she was asked to join several other cadets at the criminal justice training academy in Burien, Wash.
“(County) didn’t hire using affirmative action, so everyone got hired the same way, with civil service testing — all pass/fail stuff,” she said. “The City would hire some by gender, so they had quite a few females versus the County. I found there was a little more animosity with the City because people would say, ‘They just got hired because they needed women,’ or whatever. County never had that, and we only had a handful of females. We got there the same way as everyone else, so people couldn’t say that.”
Pecoraro spent 18 months studying and training at the academy in Burien, all the while raising her two boys, who were now 12 and 5. It was a stressful period in her life, but with help from her ex-husband, the family made it work for her to complete the training necessary to become a sheriff’s deputy.
She spent a total of two years with Spokane County before giving in to the urge to return to Portland, where a sister and her mother reside to this day.
“I had always had a dream of joining Portland’s mounted patrol, so when they disbanded them earlier this year, that really broke my heart,” Pecoraro says. “I remember being a kid and seeing the horses and thinking that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”
In 2004, an opportunity with the Lake Oswego Police Department presented itself, and she was hired to join the force.
“I was really excited, because it was like coming home,” she says.
It’s now been almost 14 years, and Pecoraro has proved to be a valuable asset to the City’s police department, especially for her efforts to set up restitution and community service for juvenile cases and her work with the elderly.
“That compassionate side of police work gives me a lot of fulfillment, because there are a lot of things we can do,” she says. “I’ve worked with the Adult Community Center on cases, adult protective services, mental health and other groups to problem-solve different issues. That’s been really good.”
Today, Pecoraro is a proud mother of two Air Force service members. Nico, 27, is a Tactical Air Control Party Specialist stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington; his Special Forces unit is attached to the Army and gives air support to ground troops by calling in air strikes. Race, 21, ended up more closely following in his mother’s footsteps by becoming a crew chief himself; he’s currently stationed in England and specializes in overhaul maintenance of aircraft.
While she would have been proud of any career path her boys decided upon, Pecoraro says there’s a bit of extra gratification seeing her sons serve their country in the same branch of the military in which she herself served.
As for her law enforcement career, Pecoraro says she’s hoping to use her position to empower girls and young women to understand they can do any job they please as long as they put their mind to it.
She and a fellow female officer have given several presentations to Girl Scout troops and others, explaining the ins and outs of police work. She says there are few things that give her more joy than when she pulls up in her police car and sees the excitement on young girls’ faces when they see her in uniform.
“A lot of girls need role models, and to see that you can do these things they may not otherwise do is empowering,” she says. “I’m not very big either, so you don’t have to be a monster to do these jobs.”