Chief Says Over and Out to Lifelong Career with Kent State Police Department

Dean Tondiglia’s 43 years of service honored with a humanitarian award in his name

Kent State University Police Chief and Director of Public Safety Dean Tondiglia wasn’t legally old enough to be a police officer when he was hired by the Kent State Police Department.

Tondiglia, just 20 at the time, was attending Kent State studying criminal justice and working part-time as the dog catcher for the Kent City Police Department when he heard that Kent State was hiring new officers. He applied and began training at the university’s Police Academy, even though he wasn’t legally an adult.  

“I turned 21 while I was in the academy,” he said.

It was July 1981.  

On Friday, May 3, Tondiglia reports for duty for the last time, capping a successful career spanning nearly 43 years, the last nine as police chief.

Earlier this week, colleagues from throughout the university and from law enforcement across Northeast Ohio, gathered to celebrate his retirement and pay tribute to a career that brought not just innovations to the police department, but a whole lot of heart.

Dean Tondiglia is presented with a humanitarian award that will be given in his name.
Chris Jenkins, Kent State assistant director of Public Safety and assistant chief of police, presents retiring Chief Dean Tondiglia, left, with the humanitarian award named in his honor.

“Dean is a true leader, mentor and friend,” said Chris Jenkins, assistant director of public safety and assistant chief of police, who will assume the role of interim police chief with Tondiglia’s retirement.  

Jenkins delivered a proclamation introducing a new university Humanitarian Award in Tondiglia’s name that will be given annually to a student, faculty or staff member who exemplifies his kindness and compassion.

“The care he has and the compassion he demonstrates not only to his department employees but also to all members of our university community is extraordinary and genuine,” Jenkins said. “His authenticity is matched by the respect he shows for the dignity of all persons. His leadership and humanitarianism have extended throughout Portage County and the State of Ohio.”

Jenkins said it was only fitting to commemorate Tondiglia’s years of service with an award that reflected the qualities that made Tondiglia such a fine leader.  

“This award is a humanitarian award that speaks to his kindness and dignity for any and every person that he touches and his compassion,” Jenkins said.

At his retirement party, Tondiglia was honored by law enforcement from throughout the community, representing the Portage County Prosecutor’s Office, the Portage County judiciary, the FBI, the Ohio State Highway Patrol and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, all of whom have worked with Tondiglia over his lengthy career.

“I’m so blessed. I say to everybody that I’m the luckiest chief around. I’ve got outstanding people, outstanding staff to work with and they’re really good people,” Tondiglia said.

May 4

Tondiglia has taken some ribbing from fellow officers who noted his retirement date of May 3, the day before the university’s annual commemoration of the May 4, 1970, shootings on campus – typically a busy time for the university police.

Tondiglia, who was raised in nearby Ravenna, Ohio, said he vividly remembers May 4, 1970, when he was nine years old. His grade school was near the armory in Ravenna, where the Ohio National Guard had assembled during the campus unrest. Following the shootings, students were dismissed from school early, and residents were told to remain in their homes.  

During his early days on the police force, the Kent Campus was still highly active with protests and demonstrations relating to the shootings and subsequent litigation.

“I have watched it evolve over the decades into more of an educational experience for people coming back and learning what happened and reflecting on that,” Tondiglia said.

Department Innovations

Tondiglia has been responsible for many innovations in the department and has always embraced the use of modern technology, including computer-aided dispatch when it became available and electronic field reporting that allows officers to file reports from computers in their patrol cars.  

“When I started here, we had virtually no technology, we didn’t even have email,” Tondiglia recalled. “We had no technology in our cars other than the radio. The mobile data systems and all the advanced kinds of license plate readers we have today just didn’t exist back then. Everything was on paper.”

The department was integral in the creation of a regional police information system with Kent State, the Portage County Sheriff’s Department, and the Kent city and Brimfield Township police departments, which Kent State still hosts.

“It really helped in exchanging information and being able to see what’s going in the communities all around us and made Kent State safer too,” he said.

Tondiglia also approved the creation of the department’s first K-9 Unit.

Chief Tondiglia is honored with the university trailblazer award.
In 2019, Chief Dean Tondiglia was honored with the University Trailblazer Award.

“We had recognized that situations were occurring on college campuses and other areas around the country where they were getting bomb threats and we thought that it would be beneficial for us to not have to rely on another agency for help if something were to happen. If we had our own, we would be able to respond quicker,” he said.

The department already has retired two dogs, Coco and Dexter, and currently has Fredy and Salem on the force. The dogs also have proved to be excellent goodwill ambassadors for the department, Tondiglia added.

Family of Public Servants

Tondiglia knew from an early age that he wanted to become a police officer.

Tondiglia’s mother, Jeanne Tondiglia, now 96, and an honored guest at this retirement party, served for many years in the Portage County Clerk of Courts' Office and for a time was the elected county clerk of courts. His father, Sam, ran various restaurants and worked at Kent State as a food service manager for many years, before his passing in 2009.

As a youth, Tondiglia said he often observed the police officers when he would visit his mother at work and received encouragement from many of them to pursue a career in policing.

“I just always kind of knew that was it,” he said.

Tondiglia earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and his master’s degree in public administration at Kent State.

Changing Landscape of Police Work

Over his lengthy career, Tondiglia has observed how crime has changed. Drug and alcohol cases and disorderly conduct, common on college campuses, have declined, while the need for mental health interventions has greatly increased, particularly since COVID-19.  

Dean Tondiglia with fellow officers in the 1980s.
Chief Dean Tondiglia and fellow officers in the 1980s.

Calls for mental health crises have increased over the past 15 years from five or 10 per year, to close to 200, he said.  

“We also recognized the need to provide our officers with additional training on how to help those individuals in a mental health crisis,” he added.  

Tondiglia also has helped to foster training for officers on how to deal with individuals who are on the autism spectrum, in response to increasing numbers of neurodiverse students on campus. The department hosted neurodiverse students to speak with Kent State police officers about their experiences and arranged for the students to speak at a meeting of the county police chiefs’ association to further the educational component.

The advent of social media and cell phones impacted police work by creating an increase in cyberbullying and harassment, as well as through its use as a marketing machine to ramp up crowds for events, such as the 2018 gun rights rally on the Kent Campus, which attracted people from across the country through social media.

Tondiglia noted there are pluses, too, with police successfully using social media to solve crimes, or citizens capturing valuable crime scene information on cell phone video.

When school shootings and other mass shootings became a widespread social problem, active shooter training became a regular part of the department’s work, to help ensure students, faculty and staff remained safe in the event of such an incident.

“Certainly, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s we didn’t do anything like that,” he said.  

Memorable Assignments

Over his four decades, many memories stand out for Tondiglia.  

In 2012, President Barack Obama came to Kent State – the first time a sitting president ever visited campus – and Tondiglia worked with the Secret Service on the security plan.

Dean Tondiglia with President Barack Obama
Dean Tondiglia with President Barack Obama in 2012 when the president visited Kent State.

But his most vivid memory is the case of a serial shooter who plagued campus from December 1991 to February 1992.

As a lieutenant, Tondiglia was the lead detective on the case of Mark Cunningham, who shot and killed a university custodian in December 1991, and later shot a student in White Hall in January 1992 (she survived), before going on a shooting spree at an apartment complex on Morris Road in February 1992, and later being pursued and shot dead by Kent city police. Police were able to connect all the crimes through ballistic evidence.  

No matter that situation, though, the goal is always the same Tondiglia said: “To keep Kent State campuses and its people as safe as possible.”  

Retirement Awaits

Kent State Police Chief Dean Tondiglia receives well wishes at his retirement party.
Kent State Police Chief Dean Tondiglia receives well wishes at his retirement party.

The life of a police officer requires great sacrifice for the officer’s family, too, and Tondiglia thanked his wife, Debi, for her years of understanding. He noted how he had to miss his daughter Samantha’s departure for her first homecoming dance due to the gun rights rally on campus in 2018.

Tondiglia joked that he won’t miss the 4:30 a.m. phone calls on snowy days to determine whether the weather will be severe enough to cancel classes. And, he is looking forward to turning off his phone whenever he wants.

“I’ve been here a long time and I love what I do and the people I work with and I love Kent State University,” he said. “But, having said that, I love my family and I want to have time to enjoy some quality time with my wife and family and do some of the things we’ve always wanted to do, and I just thought it was the right time.”

POSTED: Thursday, May 2, 2024 02:53 PM
Updated: Thursday, May 2, 2024 04:35 PM
Lisa Abraham