COVINGTON, Ga. — The more Covington Police Department chief Stacey Cotton talked about the last 25 years, the more his face showed his hand.
The more his skin got flushed. The more his voice choked up. The more moisture gathered at the corners of his eyes and eye lids. It seemed, at first, that he tried to make it like just another chat with a reporter about something going on with his department. But it didn’t take long to know that this conversation was much more than anything routine.
That’s because, when Cotton’s work day comes to an end on Tuesday May 30, and when he removes his work clothes and displaces his badge, it’ll be his last time.
After 25 1/2 years at the helm of Covington’s police department, and following more than 36 years working for the City of Covington, Cotton is retiring.
He announced his decision Monday to his staff via email, citing not much more for reason other than, it was time.
“You know, 36 years is a long time,” Cotton said. “I’m still young enough that I can go and have another career and do something different, but I’ve also reached the age where I could early retire with the city, and I just felt like I’d like to ave a little different scenery.”
Originally from Decatur, Georgia, Cotton moved to the Newton County area when he was almost 6 years old, and has called himself “an East Atlanta boy” since that time.
He gradated from Newton High School, learned lessons about life, leadership and perseverance while playing basketball and football under local legend coach Ron Bradley and generally fell in love — not just with the work he did, but the ones he did it for. That’s why he didn’t hesitate when asked what part of these last 36 years he’d miss most.
“That’s easy,” Cotton said. “It’s the people. It’s the people. I’m a big NASCAR fan, and whenever I see people ask any of the drivers who are burnt out on the sport and they get out and retire, when they ask them what they’ll miss most, it’s always ‘the people in the garage,’” Cotton said.
Cotton’s “garage” for almost four decades was CPD headquarters. He’s literally given the brunt of his adult life to the department, including depositing energy from his own construction hobby to help the department secure, and later face lift, its digs. And now that he’s putting down his badge as an officer, he says he’s excited to turn his current hobby into a second career.
Cotton will enter the private sector, working with a Metro Atlanta company that aids in construction and engineering services — something that’s right in his non-law enforcement wheelhouse.
“I like to call myself an armchair engineer,” he said. “In my personal life, I’ve remodeled six houses and built my own house. Every time I go into a building, I look at it and try to see the why and the how of it. So this next move will be a natural fit.”
If it’s anything as natural as Cotton’s career in law enforcement has been, he’ll likely be successful in it as well.
A disgruntled beginning
As content as Cotton has been working for the City of Covington’s police department all these years, his journey began by him being a disillusioned college student.
“It’s a really funny story, actually,” he said. “I came home frustrated from college, and after 2 1/2 years of wasting my parents’ money, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
A chance encounter with now-retired captain Craig Treadwell changed all that.
“I was working for Mr. James Hayes at the time down at ACS doing heating and air for about nine months, and that’s when I ran into Craig Treadwell,” he said. “Craig told me, ‘come and work for us, and we’ll pay for your college.’”
The offer seemed intriguing, and Cotton proceeded to take the offer without much delay, though it would be a while before he made good on the college tuition part of the deal. He was having way to much fun being a police officer.
“When I went to work there, I found out that I liked it and I had a knack for it,” Cotton said. “I didn’t go right back to school because I discovered the SWAT Team, high speed chases, just the excitement of law enforcement. But I found I had a knack for it and for leadership, so I just stayed and grew my career.”
Eventually, the chief went on to attain an associate’s, bachelor’s and two masters degrees during his time on the force. But when he talks about his accomplishments, it doesn’t quite sound like what some may expect.
“Honestly, to see other people grow and accomplish things, that was my best accomplishment,” Cotton said. “It really wasn’t about the stuff I did. It was about the people who I got the chance to help. To watch those success stories…I mean, the biggest accomplishment is my life is seeing the successes of other people.”
That’s when his voice began to crack and trail off. That’s when the tears threatened to creep out of his eyelids and slide down his cheeks.
He old the story of a young man he took under his wing, sort of as a mentor. He was a kid who’s parents weren’t greatly involved in his life, so Cotton would take the young boy back and forth to the recreation center to play sports.
He went on to graduate as a student-athlete from Morgan County High School. Now he’s in the United States Army serving in Manila. Cotton gets a kick out of the text messages he gets from his one-time mentee whenever he touches down in another foreign country.
“Just, wow,” Cotton exclaimed before pausing for a beat. “Just the beauty of it. He got out of our town and went to see the world, to serve our country and to be successful. That’s the kind of stuff that makes my job worthwhile.”
Then there’s the time where one of the officers in his department came aboard without expressing much interest in pursuing higher education. Perhaps, seeing a bit of himself in that officer, Cotton felt the need to give him a push toward achieving a college education. He did it because he saw something greater in the young officer than the officer could see in himself at the time.
“He went on to graduate from college, and now all of his kids know nothing about anything but going and getting a college education,” Cotton said. “All because Daddy went to college, and they saw that. That’s generational, and that’s the kind of stuff I’m proud of. Nudging people in the right direction.”
Leaving a legacy to continue
That mentoring approach is one that he perfected with his staff over the last quarter century. Cotton began creating a succession plan for his eventual departure not too much later after he began his tenure as chief.
“From all the leaders I’ve studied over the years, I learned you’ve gotta kind of have your organization ready,” he said. “I have 19 in my command staff right now. We’re a 24/7, 365-day operation, so we have to have the ability to be flexible and prepare to have other people step up. That’s why I began getting our guys ready for that, because you never know when it could be.”
Cotton says he’s impressed with the level of “talent” in the department, and feels comfortable that more than one or two of his current staff could take on his job and do it right.
“It’s obviously the city’s decision to make, but my personal belief is, that’s part of why you have succession plans,” he said. “To see people with potential and prepare them for more. I believe my assistant chief Phillip Bradford is well-positioned for the job if he wants it. I believe my other commanders and those at the captains level, are quite capable if they wanted it.”
Whoever becomes the next person up, will have to continue to evolve with the times — which means keeping a close eye on how ever-expanding technology continues to shape the way police officers do their work.
“Just in my life span being a chief, we went from no computers and everything hand written, to now we’re talking about Artificial Intelligence type stuff coming down the pipe,” he said. “When you go to the police conferences, they used to talk about equipment like guns, leather gear and bullet proof vests. Now, you go, and 70 percent of it is technology.
“It’s software, cameras, drones. An officer can know scan a driver’s license and hit a couple of key strokes to print a citation out. Video cameras in the car are linked to their body cam on their vest, and the police car is like a mobile wifi hot spot. Everything officers do goes back to our network from that car.”
Technology has also changed the way criminals move, Cotton says.
“I think technology has certainly shifted the ways in which we report crime,” he said. “Criminals are taking advantage of it and doing more fraud stuff, which is why you see crime numbers going down in some ways, because crime is happening in different, more sophisticated ways.”
Under Cotton’s watch, the CPD has earned numerous accreditation awards and other accolades marking it as one of the nation’s leaders in small-community policing. He now believes that he can take the lessons he’s learned from his time in law enforcement to help him excel in his new private sector work.
Meanwhile, he feels his current staff is more than ready to take the mantle he leaves and push it further.
“The organization is not me,” he said. “The organization is the people who work there. You prepare them to work with the talents they have without me. Like I’ve said, they just let me turn the lights out and lock the doors in the evening, and that’s been a blessing and an honor to do for so many years.
“But I think they’re ready to stretch their legs and show the world that they can do the job without me.”