Multi-tasker: Southfield police chief adept at juggling duties

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 By Tom Kirvan

Legal News
 
Some five years ago, as he contemplated the next step on his career path, Eric Hawkins figured it was time for a bit of self-assessment.
 
At the time, Hawkins was a lieutenant for the Southfield Police Department, a law enforcement agency where he began his career as a cadet in 1990. He aspired to “someday becoming a police chief in a metropolitan city,” such as the Detroit suburb of more than 72,000 residents.
 
“I knew that if wanted to grow personally and professionally, I was going to have to improve in four particular areas,” Hawkins said. “It’s tough to be honest with yourself, but I had to recognize my weaknesses and set about to improve in those areas.”
 
In short order, he determined that he needed to sharpen his “focus,” to display “greater discipline,” to improve his “attention to detail,” and, finally, to become confident and composed “while working under extreme stress.”
 
After some further soul searching, Hawkins decided the best way to address those areas of concern was to enroll in law school, an academic undertaking not for the faint of heart.
 
“Frankly, my wife thought I was crazy, but I’ve always had a thirst for learning and decided that obtaining a legal education ultimately would be a great help in furthering my professional development,” Hawkins said.
 
So, in 2010, Hawkins enrolled as a part-time student at Cooley Law School in Auburn Hills, planning to take classes on nights and weekends during a four-year march to his juris doctor degree. Like other law students with full time work responsibilities, Hawkins knew the task would be difficult, akin to a juggler with four balls always in the air.
 
The start of law school somewhat coincided with Hawkins’ appointment as one of three interim police chiefs in Southfield following the retirement of Joseph Thomas Jr., head of the department for more than 20 years. Within 18 months, Hawkins was the city’s choice to succeed Thomas despite some reservations by city council members.
 
“There was some concern about whether I would be able to handle the job while going to law school,” Hawkins related. “In all honesty, I had to ask myself that same question, given that this is a 24-hour a day kind of position. But by that time, I had already invested two years into my law school education and was becoming more and more accustomed to working well ‘under extreme stress,’ which was one of my initial goals when I enrolled.”
 
The stress would reach an early boiling point for Hawkins, however. A week after beginning his job as police chief, the department was in the media crosshairs following a fatal shooting in the lobby of the police station on Evergreen Road.
 
On Veterans Day in 2012, a 64-year-old Southfield man with a reported history of mental instability walked into the police station and opened fire on several officers with a .38 caliber handgun. One officer was wounded during the confrontation, while the gunman was shot and killed by police in the shootout.
 
“It was hard to comprehend something like that happening, especially on an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon,” Hawkins said, recalling the tragedy in which the aftershocks are still being felt in the department today. “It was a traumatic event for all those there that day, particularly the police officers directly involved. A man’s life was lost that day and others were placed in life-threatening situations. We will always remember those facts each day that we walk through the doors here.”
 
The experience, tragic as it was, enabled Hawkins to “grow” in his role as police chief, learning the “ins and outs of dealing with the media,” while also developing a greater understanding of the needs of his police staff.
 
“I attended the training sessions we had for the officers involved in the incident so that they knew I was interested in hearing how they were impacted and how they were coping with what happened,” Hawkins said. “It gave me a sense of the pain they were feeling. I came away better equipped to provide the necessary support for them.”
 
A product of Pontiac Northern High School, Hawkins was a standout basketball player for the Huskies, taking his talents to Oakland Community College.
 
“I had aspirations of becoming a pro basketball player—the next Michael Jordan,” Hawkins said of his hoop dreams. “But then reality set in when I started competing against players bigger, taller, and better than me. That’s when I decided it was wise to seek a different career path.”
 
In 1990, he was accepted into the cadet program at the Southfield Police Department, which offered him a taste of life in law enforcement while he was pursuing a college education.
 
“There are hundreds of applicants for four or five spots each year, so I felt fortunate to have been selected,” Hawkins said. “The fact that the program covers the cost of college obviously was a huge bonus.”
 
After a year as a cadet, Hawkins was offered a full time position as a patrol officer, eventually earning promotions to sergeant and lieutenant before becoming police chief. Among the constants during his career in Southfield has been a desire to further his academic education. While working full time, Hawkins earned an associate in business administration degree from Oakland Community College, bachelor and master degrees from Central Michigan University, while also graduating from the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.
 
Now, in his final year of law school, Hawkins is about to place another feather in his academic hat. He is on the dean’s list at Cooley, where he was a member of the law review. If he already wasn’t gainfully employed, Hawkins said he might pursue a career as a prosecutor or a criminal defense lawyer, thanks in large part to the influence of Cooley Professor Alan Gershel, a former federal prosecutor who teaches several criminal law courses at the Auburn Hills campus.
 
“He is an outstanding professor and he has really sparked my interest in criminal law,” Hawkins said of Gershel, who formerly served as chief of the Criminal Division for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit.
 
Married and the father of two children, Hawkins grew up in Pontiac, where his late parents, Betty and Jimmie, began their careers working for General Motors. A Vietnam vet, his father spent 35 years with the giant automaker, retiring as a senior engineer at the GM Tech Center in Warren. His mother worked part-time, helping raise Hawkins and his younger sister, Stephanie, now married to a Wayne County Sheriff’s deputy and the mother of teen-age triplets.
 
Hawkins and his wife, Latricia, were high school sweethearts, and have two children of their own, Eric, a recent graduate of Oakland University, and Brianna, a freshman at the University of Michigan. Their son is pursuing a career as a physical therapist, while their daughter has plans to obtain a degree in nursing.
 
“I am blessed with a wonderful family that has been incredibly supportive and understanding,” Hawkins said. “They mean the world to me.”
 
So does his relationship with the Southfield community, where he and his family have lived for more than 20 years.
 
“There are a lot of benefits to living here, and as resident, I have a real vested interest in keeping this community safe and secure,” Hawkins said. “Living here, shopping here, going out to eat here, helps me stay in touch with what is going on in the community. I always learn something new each time I receive a compliment or a complaint from our residents, probably more so from the complaints. It gives me insight on what we need to do to improve as a police department and as a city.”