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Pederson named Minnesota State Trooper of the Year

Dion Pederson, left, and his wife Sue Pederson are both troopers with the State Patrol. Pederson won the Trooper of the Year award after 20 years of service. The couple lives in Park Rapids. (submitted photo)

Dion Pederson of Park Rapids has been named the Minnesota State Patrol (MSP) trooper of the year.

Pederson, an accident reconstruction specialist and academy instructor whose career as a trooper started in 1997, received the award Feb. 14. It recognized his service during 2017.

An announcement about the award on the MSP's website said, "It has been more than 20 years since Dion Pederson became a Minnesota State Patrol trooper. Yet, year after year, he continues leaving an agency in a better place than the year before."

Pederson, the statement continued, "is one of the leading crash reconstruction specialists in the state. He's a mentor. He's a crash data retrieval specialist. He's a firearms instructor and a certified armor. Oh, and he still somehow finds time to patrol the roads, present at conferences and represent the State Patrol with nothing but professionalism."

Pederson studied law enforcement at Alexandria Technical and Community College, where he met his wife, Sue, in 1986. He started his career as a deputy with the Norman County Sheriff's Office.

"So, I'm actually in my 29th year of law enforcement," he said in an interview.

In 1997, he joined the MSP, where Sue had been a trooper since 1989. She is currently a sergeant, the senior trooper in the local office.

The couple's daughters Nicole, 24, and Alex, 22, are graduates of Park Rapids Area High School, where son Nolan, 17, is currently a junior.

Pederson teaches firearms and crash investigation at the law enforcement academy in Camp Ripley, where cadets witness real vehicle crashes using dummies "so they can see the live action, how things actually pan out," he said.

In real-life accidents, Pederson analyzes the scene, the condition of the vehicles, including the possibility of neglected mechanical issues, and analyzes data from the airbag system's "black box," which is actually silver.

"There's just a ton of information in there," he said, "like if seat belts were worn, the pre-impact speeds, was there braking, were there steering maneuvers."

Newer vehicles also have yaw sensors and steering wheel angle sensors, showing whether and how a driver reacted to a threat.

"It will tell me," he said, "what the car was doing, what the driver was doing; but generally, we can't tell you what the driver was thinking. We can take their word at some point, but evidence won't lie. Skid marks, data that I find on the scene, my speed analysis — that stuff doesn't lie."

Pederson said he has done approximately 675 accident reconstructions to date. He has also consulted with other investigators in neighboring districts and in the metro area when another reconstructionist isn't available or to help with a backlog of cases.

"They send me a file with several photos," he explained. "I'll talk to the trooper who was actually there. If I feel it is a complex case, then I'll physically go down there and look at it."

Pederson says Google Maps and Google Earth have helped by allowing him to zoom in on an intersection and see the situation where an accident occurred.

In a recent high-profile case in Aitkin County, Pederson helped another crash investigator reenact a hit-and-run accident that killed a little girl. After using a dummy to study the dynamics of the crash, they concluded the child was probably struck by a boat trailer. When the driver was caught, evidence showed it was indeed a boat trailer. The driver pled guilty.

In other hit-and-runs or cases where a driver has fled from a wreck, Pederson looks at airbag data, which can tell whether a person in the front seat is adult- or child-sized; how far forward or back the seat is positioned; DNA evidence on the airbag, which can be analyzed by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension; vehicle parts left at the scene, which can be used to narrow down the model-year of the vehicle, and more.

"In the average reconstruction," he said, "it probably takes 40, 50, 60 hours, sometimes more. If it's a complex case, it could be up to 100 hours of work."

The hardest part of the job, he said, is "probably math. Reconstruction is a lot of math. I've never been very good at math. It takes me maybe a little bit longer. But I don't want to put a product out there that's going to be highly scrutinized because I did something wrong."

Pederson said he also strives to make sure his reports are written in a way crash victims and their families can understand, to give them the answers they need.

"If you can make heads or tails of what I wrote," he said, "I think that's good. That's how I explain it at the academy, too. Don't try to sound smarter than you are. Don't try to dazzle people with the word-of-the-day. Just be yourself."

In addition to his on-the-road duties and his mentoring work, Pederson also made presentations about crash analysis last year at the east- and west-central Toward Zero Deaths conferences.

His advice for today's cadets who would like to see a Trooper of the Year Award on their desk someday is: "Take your calls. Be a good partner. Work. Don't be a load. Everybody has days when you're busting your butt all day long, and there are days when there's not very much going on — you appreciate those days. It actually works well. You go out and work traffic, stop some cars, interact with the people. Hopefully you're making a difference out there."

Pederson acknowledged that every time a public safety officer puts on the uniform, especially nowadays, it's dangerous.

"When you start your shift, your goal is to make sure you sign off at the end of your shift and go be with your family."

In a larger sense, he said, his goal as a trooper is to help people. Besides the opportunity to do that, he said what keeps him putting on the uniform day after day is the daily mystery of what will happen next.

"When you get into your squad car," he said, "when you sign on for the day, you have no idea what you're going to be doing. It might be going to a crash. You might be going to a medical call. You might be helping the county at a different call. To me, it's the thrill of the unknown."

In the future, he plans on continuing to do what he is doing — and if possible, doing more of it.

"I would certainly like to do reconstruction full-time for the state," he said, "but that's out of my hands. I do believe we need to have full-time reconstructionists throughout the state."

He said there seem to be changes underway to make that happen, though it may not happen during his patrol career. He added, if he retires, he hopes to continue doing crash analysis as a private reconstruction consultant.

"The state has blessed me with a lot of extra training," he said. "To me, it would be crazy to let that go by the wayside."

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