Novi's Officer of the Year illustrates the humanity behind the badge

By: Charity Meier | Novi Note | Published October 6, 2023

 Detective Shawn Penzak smiles for a quick photo in May.

Detective Shawn Penzak smiles for a quick photo in May.

Photo by Charity Meier

 Officer Hailey Penzak and Detective Shawn Penzak, of the Novi Police Department, pose for a photo with their 7-year-old daughter, Avery.

Officer Hailey Penzak and Detective Shawn Penzak, of the Novi Police Department, pose for a photo with their 7-year-old daughter, Avery.

Photo provided by Hailey Penzak

NOVI — Detective Shawn Penzak, 49, of Canton, was named the 2023 Novi Police Officer of the Year in May, and he said that he wants the public to see officers as people first, rather than as symbols of authority.

Penzak said that there is nothing special that qualifies him to be Officer of the Year.

“Everybody here, they work hard,” Penzak said. “That’s one of the things I like about working here is that I’m not going to have to cover for anybody else not picking up their share. I try to stay positive. What set me apart from anybody else, personally, I don’t know.”


Discovering police work
Penzak joined the police force when he was 29, following a short career in the mortgage industry. He said he loved the people he worked with, but the mortgage industry didn’t fit his personality. He heard stories about policing from a friend, and a former colleague’s son, and Penzak said it was far different than what he had imagined police work to be as a kid.

“Had I known what police officers truly did growing up, it probably would have been an avenue that I would have taken right out of college,” Penzak said. “I didn’t know much about (police officers) as a kid, and the only interaction that we would have with them as a kid would be when they would make traffic stops, and I didn’t realize how much more they deal with, how much more they are involved with the community.”

He recalled stopping to play basketball with kids while he was on road patrol, and he said he doesn’t remember that type of interaction with police officers as a kid.

“You see police as authority figures. You don’t see them as people,” he said. “That is what I wanted to kind of change when I got into policing. I want the kids, I want the community, to see that we’re not just the authority — we’re people. We love to laugh. We love to joke. We love to have normal conversations with people. It doesn’t always have to be that we’re investigating something. We have a general interest in people, in the businesses, in the community. Just because we’re walking in doesn’t mean somebody did something wrong. We may want to see if there is anything we can do to help. We may be there just to say, ‘We’re here if you need us.’”

He said he just wants to open the lines of communication between the community and the Police Department and for officers to be seen as equals, as people.

Penzak grew up in Fraser and attended Fraser High School. He said Fraser will always be home to him.

He said he earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Madonna University in Livonia, as he wanted to help people. He said he loves talking to people and loves helping them come up with solutions sometimes for their own problems or things that they might be dealing with.   

He had never made the connection to his interest in psychology and helping people to how much that ties in with police work, but the stories his friends shared helped him to realize how much psychology and human interaction is involved in policing.

Penzak then put himself through the academy and was offered a job with the Novi Police Department.

“I got lucky. I ended up at a great place,” Penzak said.


Career with Novi PD
He said he started off on the road patrol, as most officers do. He did road patrol for two years but always had a desire to work with the K-9 units, as he loves dogs. He said he approached the department about letting him train a second dog, as the department only had one police dog at the time. He trained his first dog, Moose, a German shepherd, and worked with him on the force until Moose retired. Moose has since passed away.

Penzak said he trained Moose from the time he was 8 weeks old to be a K-9 officer and said it was a great experience. However, today he said the majority of the K-9 dogs are pretrained and then matched with a police handler.

Penzak also trained another dog named Roque, a Dutch shepherd, and worked with him until the marijuana law passed. This caused Roque to go into retirement early, after just five years of service, as he was a drug dog who, as part of his training, would sniff out marijuana.

Penzak took on his current role of detective five years ago. He said he has loved every role he has worked with Novi.

“I loved it all. The road patrol gave me contact with the citizens, the business owners. The dog gave me a chance even more so to talk to people, because everybody wants to know about the dogs. So I got just a great opportunity, because (the dog’s) an icebreaker in so many situations, because people want to hear about it. So having the dog was the next step after road patrol that just enhanced me being involved with the community and people,” Penzak said.

“Now the detective bureau, I don’t get to see it firsthand, but for all the road work you do and for all the dog work that you do, you kind of hand things off from there to the detectives. So now I get to see the back end of it. All the cases that they get to start, now I get to see how they finish. So I’m loving that too,” Penzak said.

He said the greatest lesson he has learned over the years is that you do make a lot of mistakes and that it is OK to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. He said that he has learned how to build a rapport and a foundation with people so that they will open up to him.

“A lot of times the media is not our friend,” Penzak said of how police officers tend to be portrayed in the news. He said the good side of policing needs to be acknowledged.

“Whether it is helping somebody that locked their keys in their car or administering Narcan to somebody that overdosed and saving them, (or) handling somebody that is upset after a traffic crash. We see people usually not at their best. We see them at their worst, and it’s different, but you have to deal with that and you have to help them to make the best of it too,” he said.

He said that if more people got a chance to sit with police officers and really see what police officers do, that more people would pursue the profession. Unfortunately, he said, they see a lot of stuff on TV shows that doesn’t give an accurate portrait of what police officers do day in and day out.

“Most of it is boring, because we are just going out and doing the little things to help people, but you have to be mentally prepared for the big things, and most days it doesn’t come,” he said.


Family life
Through policing he met and later married his wife, Hailey, who is a road patrol officer as well as a psychologist. Together they have a 7-year-old daughter, Avery, who is the light of his life. He said he is interested in whatever his daughter is interested in.

“He is just probably one of the hardest working people I know,” Hailey Penzak said. “He is pretty easygoing, and pretty laid-back, but I feel like he works really hard; he goes above and beyond. Especially this past year — he has been working a lot of cases and putting a lot of effort into that, and it paid off for him.”

Hailey Penzak said that her husband stands out as an officer because he is great at talking to people. She said that by relating to them and empathizing with them, he gets confessions.

“He’s just an overall good person and on top of that he is very attentive to detail,” she said. “So some things that people might overlook he pays attention to.”

Avery said she was “happy” that her dad was named Police Officer of the Year.

The Penzaks are into fitness. Shawn Penzak said he competed in his first Ironman event a little more than a year ago. He said he likes to garden, and he loves sports and played baseball and football growing up and in college. He said he also loves to travel and has traveled internationally. He said the family tries to go to warm places a couple times a year.

“We like warm places. Snow is not my friend,” he said with a laugh.

Shawn Penzak said there are a few ways the community can experience what it is like to be a police officer. He said people are able to go on ride-alongs, and that those who do participate in that will never be intentionally sent in harm’s way. He said they also have a youth academy that helps to illustrate the life of an officer to kids.