Hinsdale police officer values serving others

In the early 2000s, Elmhurst native Karen Kowal aspired to start her law enforcement career with her hometown police force.

"There were, like, 300 applicants and no openings in the department at the time," Kowal related. "The numbers were much different than what they are today."

So she explored other opportunities nearby.

"I just started applying and Hinsdale was one of my top choices, and I came up as No. 1 on (the village's) list and got hired," she said.

Now as a 20-year veteran of the Hinsdale Police Department, Kowal endeavors to educate those she serves as well as build connections with residents by leading the Hinsdale Citizen Police Academy. The free 11-week program is held on Wednesday evenings beginning Sept. 13 and is currently accepting applicants (see Page 24 for details).

Kowal described the course as bridge between the community and the department for residents "to see the wide expanse of what we do."

Through classroom instruction and hands-on exercises, students gain insight on various areas of police work. Topics include processing crime scenes, investigations and critical incidents. Participants get a primer on the law from a former village prosecutor and hear from a mental health specialist.

"We have a night specifically dedicated to traffic stops - they always love that - and it's eye-opening for them to get to experience walking up to a car and role-playing out what happens," Kowal said. "It's focused on how much you have to watch all of different things that you're looking for, that you're listening for, (knowing) where's your backup."

Being a backup for others led her into the job, she said, especially in support of youth.

"I got into because I like helping people and I wanted to help people, and I wanted to work with kids," Kowal said. "I got into it for the community aspect."

In the fall of 2019 she became the department's school resource officer for elementary and middle school students.

"My first year as (school liaison) was the year that COVID started. So I made it like nine months into the school year," she related.

That delayed Kowal's face becoming a familiar one in the hallways, but she's happy to report progress today.

"Last year was my first year where the kids actually recognized me coming back around," Kowal said. "It's definitely what I've been working toward. I enjoy seeing their smiles.

"They're so ready to learn, and it's good for them to see positive role models," she added, noting she was Hinsdale's only female officer the first half of her tenure.

Reflecting on her early years on the force, Kowal said each day was unpredictable.

"Every call you go on, you think, 'Do I really know what I'm doing?' " she said.

Kowal has come to appreciate spirit of mutual support among her colleagues.

"The officers have all been great. Everybody helps each other. It's like a team."

The Citizen Police Academy, she suggested, fosters a similar fellowship with residents.

"It's awesome to see the community get to really understand what it is that we do," she said.

- story by Ken Knutson, photo by Jim Slonoff

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean

You might be interested in: