Behind the Badge Dean Williams

Behind The Badge: Dean Williams, Executive Director of the CO Department of Corrections (Ret.)

Prior to advising the Utility team, Dean Williams began his career with the McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage, Alaska as a juvenile justice officer. Over the next 35+ years, Dean honed his skills and advanced his experience in the corrections field in multiple positions and was most recently the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections.

Dean joined the Utility, Inc. team as a contracted Corrections Expert in 2023. In his current role, he applies his over 35 years of knowledge in corrections and his experience utilizing our life-saving technology to help serve the agencies he once worked alongside!

Dean sat with Utility’s Blog Editor to answer a few questions about his story:

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself Dean.

Dean Williams
Dean Williams. Photo sourced from Correctional News

I moved to Alaska straight out of college with the plan to spend the summer there.  I had just graduated from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.  As an aside, my mother graduated there 40 years earlier.  My parents from a small town in Ohio surely thought I lost my mind as just moving out of state would have been shocking enough.  I was spellbound by the Last Frontier, as Alaska is referred to, and I stayed.  Best decision ever.

I started my career as a juvenile justice officer working with juveniles locked up at McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage.  I later moved to western Alaska to work in a small juvenile facility.  Eventually worked for the District Attorney’s Office in that large region doing follow-up investigation work.  It was a heady job for a young man like me,
traveling in small planes, delving into very troubled crimes, and helping lock up “bad guys.” (The irony of this will come full circle.) Years later, I came back to McLaughlin Youth Center, where I ended up being the Superintendent of the facility where I started my career.  I got my time in and retired.  I thought I was done.

After a couple of side jobs, I got a call from the new Governor of Alaska and landed a great job.  I was Special Assistant to the Governor of Alaska, Bill Walker.  This was a dream job – no supervision, much less pressure, just wonderful.  That all changed when the Governor asked me what we should do to set a course change for the corrections system in Alaska.  I gave him a plan for investigating the issues and a vision for how someone else would lead those changes.  And to be clear, it was never going to be me. Why would I ever give up a this job to face the challenges of leading any corrections department and all the headaches that come with it. Much easier just to lock them up than worry about what to do with them. And unfortunately, my thinking at that time was like so much of the thinking about our corrections system. This all changed, as you will read, when an Inupiaq native woman prayed for me.

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Dean pictured with Community partners operating sober living homes for recently released men.

Q: What inspired you to choose the path of working in Public Safety?

A: While I was certainly inspired to help the state I loved, by the time I got my 30 years in I sort of thought I was done being inspired, at least in the law enforcement sense. This would change. As I previously alluded to, the work I did for Governor Walker in peeling back some of the serious problems we had in our State’s correctional system moved me. I ended up investigating deaths in the state correctional system, a task I had serious reservations about. It was worse than we thought. I was comforted by the fact that this was going to be someone else’s problem. The last act of that investigation was to meet with the families of the prisoners who had died. Some of these deaths we investigated were wrong, tragic preventable deaths, and wholly unacceptable.

The last family I met with was in a small village in western Alaska in the middle of winter. In pure honesty, I just wanted to get in that village and get out. This native family was going to hate me as their son had died a tragic death and I was about to show them the video of his death. In fact the family was expectedly hostile to me. Much to my surprise the mother started praying “Thank you God for bringing this white man to us to tell us the truth. Please don’t have my family be angry with him, he is here to bring resolution to us.” And later, after showing the video with everyone in the room crying, she prayed “Dear God, help the Governor find someone who will do something so this doesn’t happen again.”

I did not expect, did not want it, but at that moment my life changed. That last act of visiting the families was Governor Walker’s idea and not one I was particularly on board with, but thank goodness he made it. That moment not only inspired me, it changed me. This was now going to be a much more difficult and challenging road. I went back, and reversed course, and that started a new chapter where I became the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Corrections and later became the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections.

Q: What were some highlights from working in Public Safety?

A: While the two-state correctional systems I led both had their own unique set of challenges, the people working in corrections systems are truly some of the most dedicated people I have known. I was clearly going to be a leader pushing for changes to get better results, to drive down recidivism, and to make the system more humane for staff and prisoners. And I quickly realized that many of the people I was now leading wanted changes more than I did. Sure, there were always going to be naysayers, but if we adopted servant leadership as our model, then the staff would beat the door down to get there because they wanted the system to be better, too.

Dean Williams pictured on the cover of an inmate newspaper

Here was another unexpected highlight of leading two correctional systems. I want to be clear that prisons above all should focus on safety and security, but I saw amazing transformations of both incarcerated individuals and staff when prisons became places of purpose and not just punishment. Hope is needed in prisons and when meaningful activities and direction are given, prisons can be the place of rehabilitation that we have aspired to. Certainly, prisons hold dangerous people, but since 90% of those people are getting released this common goal of advancing humanity is a goal shared by both staff and inmates. When they both see that amazing things happen – inmate theater, newspaper, podcast, radio station, education, seminary training, job training, etc.

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Q: What has been your biggest “lesson learned” that you’d like to share with other Public Safety leaders?

Know who you are. At the end of the day, I know I have one judge in my life who sees me for who I really am, both good and not-so-good. Correctional leaders have a shorter tenure than many other public safety fields, though we all face the political winds in these positions. Troubled waters will come if you lead long enough. Integrity is never about being up or being down in a season. It’s about a journey of deep honesty, being open to change, listening, caring about all people, and a deep moral compass.

Servant leadership is the only way to lead. If you can find a boss who believes that as well you will be better off. And find others to work for you that believe that too. If your complete identity is tied up into your position I will say this with great care, you are in trouble. Your family, your friends, and the people you love will suffer because of it. I say this with great humility. You should have talked to my wife as I was leading Colorado DOC through the pandemic. And if you only hang out with other cops, corrections people, public safety people, etc. expect to become “jaded” faster and deeper.

Q: What does Transparency mean to you?

A: I just love transparency when things are going well, don’t you? Remember the native woman who prayed for me? Even when things go horribly wrong, it is profoundly true that it is better to own up to it sooner rather than later. If you are a public safety leader long enough you will face the headwinds of being honest and transparent. People in political positions, or certain well-intentioned legal professionals, will try to steer you away from it. I get it, some of my most heated arguments were around this issue. I’ve often thought of it in these terms – what is the opposite of transparency? It’s not “non-transparency.” It’s concealment. Now there are many times concealment is completely and operationally needed/justified. If it doesn’t fall into that category of needed/justified, then what category would it fall into? That pretty much clarified it for me.

Dean Williams is pictured with an inmate interviewing him on the prison radio station.

Q: How have you seen Technology aid in Public Safety?

A: Absolutely, in the area of security systems, cameras, drones, etc. The problem with corrections is that I firmly believe we are just catching up to the technology that many law enforcement agencies are using. As a correctional leader, I would often invite vendors in to give sort of an agnostic presentation of the latest technologies. I did this before we had any RFPs (bid proposals) out and made it clear that this was no leg up and that they were getting our business. Many times even my smart IT staff had no idea what the latest technology advancements looked like. In executive roles you simply don’t know what you are missing, sort of the “you don’t know what you don’t know” position. My position, find out what you are missing, then decide what can be afforded, what the priorities are, etc. then make a decision.

Q:  What advice would you give to an agency that is going through the process of selecting a Digital Evidence Management System (DEMS)?

A: First and foremost, know who you are dealing with. That leadership book I read applies to this. It’s the who first, then the what. Of course, the what matters, but the worst failures around DEMS or any other technology failures I have seen are over-exaggerated promises and deceptive business practices. Once you commit to a bad partner it’s hard to break up later, especially if serious money has already been spent.

Secondly, get really smart people around you who know this stuff who are not star-struck by any brand. Pick people on a procurement committee who have the same set of values you have. Yes, value for dollar, but also moral value and integrity for the long haul as the product line advances. As many of us have learned, sometimes the initial lowest price is not the lowest price because the long-game costs come into play.

Lastly, ask around. Find out who else has been using their product and see what they say. Are they involved in multiple litigations over substandard delivery, for example? Again, upfront costs are only a part of the cost. I don’t know about you, but when I buy a car I go straight to a consumer watchdog agency to see what the repair record looks like. This gives you a more complete picture.

Never ask an officer to do what Technology can do for them!

Learn how Utility, Inc.’s advanced Digital Evidence Capture, Analysis and Management solutions take situational awareness to a whole new level in Corrections

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