What Vail’s Dwight Henninger gained in his year as president of International Association of Chiefs of Police | VailDaily.com

What Vail’s Dwight Henninger gained in his year as president of International Association of Chiefs of Police

Dwight Henninger focused his presidency on building trust between police and the communities they serve

Dwight Henninger is the chief of police for the town of Vail. From 2021 to 2022, he also served as the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Courtesy photo

In addition to his role as Vail’s police chief, Dwight Henninger spent the last year serving as president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. On the night of Tuesday, Jan. 10, the town of Vail recognized Henninger’s service during a celebration at the Donovan Pavilion.

Throughout the year, Henninger both learned from the organization’s members as well as brought his perspective on policing to its global audience.  

“It was really a huge honor to represent Vail and Eagle County in this role and to have my uniform present at many things around the world,” Henninger said in an interview with the Vail Daily on Wednesday.

“Not surprisingly, many people know about Vail and the type of community it is. It was such a privilege to be able to represent the citizens and policing professionals of Eagle County; I was really pleased by how people perceive our community around the world and around the nation. And hopefully, I notched it up a little bit with my participation with IACP.”

The International Association of Chiefs of Police serves as a professional association for police leaders, with over 31,000 members from over 165 countries. Through advocacy, research, outreach and education, the global organization’s mission is stated to be “advancing safer communities through thoughtful, progressive police leadership” as well as to shape the profession’s future. 

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Henninger first became involved in the organization when he was a sergeant working on environmental crimes in Southern California. Henninger said he had been invited to present to the association’s environmental crimes committee, on which he was ultimately appointed.

From there, he naturally progressed through the leadership ranks at the organization and was first elected to its executive board in 2017 and sworn in as its president in September 2021, serving in this role through October 2022.

A legacy of trust

Dwight Henninger is sworn-in to the executive board of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in the role of first vice president during a virtual ceremony Oct. 23, 2020. Henninger would then go on to serve as its president from September 2021 through October 2022.
Courtesy Photo

Henninger took over the position in a particularly turbulent time for the policing profession.

“I really felt like we as a profession had made some good progress after Ferguson, but after George Floyd’s murder, clearly there’s lots of work to be done,” he said. “Seeing the changing perceptions around police since 2020 has been hard on everybody involved in the profession. I’ve always felt 100% supported here in Vail and Eagle County, but I don’t think all departments have that level of support.”

Specifically, in his inaugural message as the president, Henninger wrote that the “trifecta” of 2020 — referring to the pandemic, “a summer of unrest following the death of George Floyd,” as well as an “overwhelming number of natural disasters” — had left the country “reeling.”

“We are seeing the effects of this in declining numbers of applicants who want to be officers, increasing retirements, and reduced staffing overall,” he wrote, adding that the times were perhaps more difficult than any other time for the profession.

For Henninger, finding ways for law enforcement officers to rebuild trust with the communities they serve in the wake of a turbulent 2020 was one of his “primary motivations” for wanting to serve in the association’s presidency role, as well as his top priority during his service.

Henninger said that trust comes down to relationships as well as modeling certain behaviors in the community.  

“If we don’t know each other — and we rely on what we see on TV or what we hear from others who have had experiences in the past — it’s hard to trust each other,” Henninger said.

Building trust, he added, is accomplished through “individual, one-on-one contacts with regular, similar performance.”

While Henninger said Vail Police Department’s officers and employees do this on a regular basis, he also hopes that the profession as a whole is making improvements.

During his tenure IACP’s president, Henninger said messaging was critical.

“We’ve tried to be cautious around wording and recognize that policing needs to take responsibility for making improvements. There’s always 5% of any profession that shouldn’t be doing the job — whether it’s reporters or attorneys or politicians or whatever — it’s the same for peace officers,” he said.

Additionally, Henninger worked to model trust-building behavior in Vail.

Henninger described the trust between police and underserved communities as “perishable,” and added that the calls for police reform in 2020 reflected this.

Here in Vail and Eagle County, he said an example of re-establishing trust is seen in the local policing agencies’ work to create a law enforcement immigrant alliance over the past decade.

“All the law enforcement leaders here in the county work with immigrant leaders in the community to build trust between the police and the immigrant population, which primarily is Latin(x) here,” he said. “I think we’ve shown pretty good strides in that area, recognized by the surveys that the Catholic Charities does and the work we’ve done just having those relationships.”

In Vail specifically, he added that the department’s work in the community also includes an initiative to train hospitality staff around potential situations that could arise with visitors and their peers.

As he ends his term as president, Henninger said he’s most proud of his legacy of building trust and hopes it will continue on in the subsequent presidencies.

In the past, the changing of the presidency was synonymous with changing priorities for the association, he said. However, the association’s current executive board has committed to continuing down this path for the next six years.

This commitment is set in a “Trust Building Campaign,” which identifies 25 tasks agencies can take to build trust, Henninger said. These actions are based on best practices, including some from police reform agencies, he added.

“The overall focus of the program is for each of us to take a good hard look at our organization’s culture and ensure we are doing our very best to build trusting relationships,” wrote Henninger in a retrospective message following his presidency.

“As we have acknowledged previously at the IACP, to move forward, we must own the mistakes of the past that have negatively impacted our relationships with certain groups, and we look to communities to judge us not on the past, but on our actions in the present,” the message continued.

Gaining global perspective

The town of Vail honored Dwight Henninger’s IACP presidency on Tuesday, Jan. 10 at the Donovan Pavillion.
Steam Master, Vail Police Department/Courtesy Photo

Henninger’s role as the IACP’s president was one that entailed many duties — from community service outreach to making decisions and driving the organization forward.

For Henninger, one of the most memorable moments of his tenure was being able to read the names of fallen officers in Colorado at the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C., last May, which he described as “very moving.”

The role also enabled him to experience how different police departments operate around the country and the world. For example, Henninger recounted something he gained from a police chief in Colombia.

“They’re doing a lot of great work in building trust with their communities even though poverty is really difficult in Colombia. The chief there ends every speech with ‘I’m proud to be a police officer,’ and I’ve modified that and I use ‘I’m proud to be a peace officer’ at the end of all my talks,” he said.

“And I really am. It sets the tone for all of the employees of the organization to recognize that they have an important job to do and that peace officers are a critical component in any community.”

His experience in Vail also gave him a unique perspective to bring to the presidency — which, Henninger said, is usually held by chiefs of mid-sized to smaller agencies due to the time and energy commitment to role demands.

“It’s not just Vail, but my entire career has been in organizations that were service-oriented and bringing that mindset to driving the IACP toward that type of professionalism and promoting that type of professionalism best practices felt very comfortable for me and not a stretch like it may have been for some of my peers,” Henninger said.

Through these experiences, Henninger has been able to bring what he’s learned back to the department that he runs in Vail.

“Throughout the years I’ve been involved with IACP, it’s given me the ability to really kind of see what’s going on around the rest of the country particularly, and identify issues that we can try to proactively resolve, and see best practices from other places and implement those here,” he said.

Some examples, he later added, include initiatives around officer wellness and mental health as well as the Vail Police Department’s partnership with Vail Mountain School through its school resource officer as well as the build-out of the co-responder model for mental health crisis response.

“I really enjoyed my time working with an organization that really works hard to improve the policing profession, both nationally and internationally,” Henninger said. “My interactions with people on the board and throughout the organization have all been so positive and really kept me invigorated for being the chief here in Vail.”

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