Christine Dunning Hired as Wilmington’s First Female Police Chief, Proves She Can Handle the Heat
Laying it out on the line: Christine Dunning is Wilmington’s first female police chief. Can she rally the old boys’ network?
Photo by Michael Sahadi
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Dunning, who turns 51 on June 7, is a Wilmington native. She grew up in Union Park Gardens and attended the old St. Thomas Elementary School and Padua Academy. She learned about the city and its neighborhoods in her youth, volunteering and doing community service work at the Fraim Boys & Girls Club, giving swimming and CPR lessons for the Red Cross and serving as a candy-striper at the Little Sisters of the Poor home when it was still on Bancroft Parkway.
As Dunning got around the city, she got to know several police officers and took an interest in their work, but not enough to make it her first career choice. At the University of Delaware, she took some criminal justice classes but majored in geography and focused on conservation and environmental topics. She joined the Army ROTC, but decided she wasn’t ready to commit to four years of active duty. She thought she’d like to work with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control—“environmental permits and the like,” she says.
But the pieces didn’t quite fit together. “You have your aspirations,” Dunning says, “but you don’t necessarily have the opportunity to pursue your career path.”
After graduating in 1984, she took a job in retail, but tired of it after a year. She felt the tug of community service, relished the structure that ROTC had instilled in her, and took a cue from her father, a command sergeant major in the National Guard Reserve. Other relatives had also worked in public safety and health. She joined the Wilmington Police Department and received her badge in October 1986.
Dunning’s police service has been marked by diverse assignments and promotions that came steadily, though not as fast as she might have liked.
After starting as a patrol officer, she moved into community policing, pounding a beat in a drug-infested East Side neighborhood, riding a bicycle on patrol in Riverside, visiting schools through the Officer Friendly program and helping develop Neighborhood Watch community groups. She served as public information officer before moving into criminal investigations, uniformed services and then back and forth between criminal investigations and human resources. She was promoted to sergeant in 1993, lieutenant in 1998 and captain in 2010.
“She takes pride in everything she does,” says Inspector Victor Ayala, Dunning’s supervisor in the community policing unit in the early 1990s. “She is a truly professional officer.”
As their paths crossed over the years, Ayala observed that “(Dunning) was stuck as a lieutenant for a long time, but you couldn’t tell by her work. Nothing changed. She just worked twice as hard.”
Some officers who are denied promotions file grievances and lawsuits, Inspector Bobby Cummings says, but Dunning “never wavered. She didn’t complain. She did her job until her opportunity came.”
“I spent 12, 13 years as a lieutenant,” Dunning says. “Yes, there were times when I thought I was bypassed, but everything gets narrower and narrower as you move up through an organization.”
Lorraine Ignudo, the police department’s fiscal administrator, says Dunning has always been extremely well-organized. “When she was expecting her first child, Dunning was meticulous about every little detail she had planned out for her maternity leave,” Ignudo recalls.
Dunning’s daughter Erin, 20, is a student at Delaware College of Art and Design. Her son Lee, 16, attends Delaware Military Academy. Dunning also has a stepdaughter in Idaho. “She was always there for them, but she has never missed a stroke at work,” Ignudo says.