Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman: Alum of the Year

Things were about to get ugly for Ramona “Mona” Dohman. The then-Maple Grove police officer and her partner were called to a rowdy Hells Angels party in the middle of the woods. A big, burly leader clad in black-leather chaps and jacket snarled at Dohman’s command to break up the 1987 bash.

“The hair on the back of my neck stood up, because I thought this could go really bad quickly,” says David Jess, her then-partner and a 1997 Metropolitan State alum. As other bikers menacingly milled about, Dohman pointedly told the leader the party was over. No ifs, ands or buts.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, Mona, I hope you know what you’re doing,’” says Jess. “She did. She just has this knack for dealing with people no matter if it’s a time of sorrow, anger or whatever. The bikers didn’t necessarily like it, but they listened and did what she said.”

The Hells Angels incident illustrates Dohman’s career-long quest to earn the public’s trust, which she views as a “gift.” She has merited the public trust during 33 years in public safety, 11 years as Maple Grove’s police chief. For the past four-plus years, she has claimed one of the state’s top public-trust posts—Minnesota’s Public Safety Commissioner.

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It’s a monumental task—and a major reason the 1998 Metropolitan State graduate was selected the university’s 2015 Alum of the Year. She quickly learned to prioritize overseeing a $600 million budget, 2,100 employees and 14 divisions, including Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS), Minnesota State Patrol, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Her achievements are especially striking considering she never even “dreamed” of applying for the job. Gov. Mark Dayton tapped her for the position. Dohman recalls feeling overwhelmed upon first entering her 10th floor office in downtown Saint Paul.

“I wasn’t sure how to feel on my first day,” says Dohman, standing by office windows offering an expansive view that includes the state capitol and Cathedral of Saint Paul. “I remember thinking, ‘What do I do first?’ I thought I’m either going to cry or get to work. So I said a prayer—my faith is very strong—and got to work.”

Did she ever.

When not advising the governor, testifying before state legislators or public speaking, Dohman traverses the state meeting with public safety partners. Under her watch, DVS has served more people every year, and fewer traffic fatalities were reported in 2014 than during any of the past seven decades.

“Her commitment and dedication are foremost; she has extremely high integrity,” says Wade Setter, the recently retired BCA superintendent appointed by Dohman. “She’s not about securing the limelight. And she cares incredibly for the people she works with.”

Dohman credits Metropolitan State for stoking her career. Her university diploma, a self-designed degree in criminal justice administration, is on a wall plaque close to U.S. and state-of-Minnesota flags that flank her desk. A nearby table showcases a photo of her and her husband’s three kids (now adults)—and a surprising artifact.

“Mother Teresa is one of my role models,” says Dohman, nodding to a large silver peace symbol. “I never got to meet her, but she embodied peace and that’s what I pray and work for every day.”

She grew up poor in tiny Vesta (pop. 319) in southwestern Minnesota. Instilled with a strong work ethic, Dohman and five siblings occasionally earned money picking rocks, detasseling corn and other chores. Higher education was a moot point, since there wasn’t money to pay for college. Besides, Dohman harbored serious doubts about whether she was college material.

But she took a chance and enrolled at Metropolitan State in 1989 while serving as a Maple Grove cop. Dohman was drawn to the university’s prior learning credits, accommodating schedule and the ability to design her own academic program.

Soon, university classes blew her away.

“Metro State gave me confidence and opened my eyes to the world as never before,” says Dohman. One of her first courses was on human sexuality, where she learned more about the GLBT population. “I remember getting done with that class and thinking, ‘There are people different than me in the world. And they don’t deserve to be judged.’ And they, like everyone else, deserve to be safe.” She continues to apply this guiding philosophy to public safety.

Dohman finally graduated—nine years after first enrolling—and then earned a graduate degree. She applauds Metropolitan State for valuing people’s uniqueness and differences and regularly refers prospective students to the university.

“I never felt like I paid money (for education) that I wasn’t getting something in return,” she says. “In fact, I would have paid more, because the experience was that good.”

Metropolitan State, Dohman observed, doesn’t forget you. She’s proudly points to her selection in a 40th anniversary university booklet celebrating 40 alumni who’ve made a difference.

One person who hasn’t forgotten Dohman is David Jess, her successor as Maple Grove’s police chief.

“She puts her heart and soul into everything at a sacrifice to herself,” says Jess, now retired. “She is so committed to helping people.” Jess pauses recounting the 29 years he has known Dohman. He pauses again, this time his voice breaking.

“She is an amazing person. I feel blessed to have worked with her. And I miss her.”