COVINGTON, Ga. – Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton journeyed across the pond for his sixth trip to the Women in Policing Conference in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia.
“Most of these women have never traveled out of their country, much less been on an airplane,” he said. “In their countries, which are really male-dominated, and by culture, the women police officers are relegated to being at the station and if they have a female victim or a child they’ll bring them to the station to talk to the lady, kind of thing.
“It was really refreshing to see how they were very grateful to be honored as participants and to have an American police chief or someone from the Georgia Bureau of Investigations speak to them and teach them something as an equal, they were very receptive and grateful and thankful for it.”
Cotton said he has taught classes for years, but this conference feels different from the instructor’s point of view.
“We can impact people’s lives as an individual,” he said. “I, Stacey Cotton, can impact another person’s life in some way. It was really refreshing to have these people come up to me and speak to me after the class and be so thankful for me taking my time to come and be with them and they were truly thankful and I was very humbled by that.”
The conference, which was held March 6 – 9 fell on International Women’s Day, which also happens to be Cotton’s wedding anniversary. The instructors surprised the women with yellow roses to celebrate.
“For me, it was kind of a double-edged sword because I was actually handing roses to women celebrating women’s day on mine and my wife’s anniversary and she was back home,” he said. “It was all good and she was good with that, of course.”
Cotton said it was important to make these women feel special.
“Oftentimes, law enforcement officers don’t get treated to feel special and then women in law enforcement, you know, that’s another layer and for these ladies to be from second and third world countries mostly, they were getting to be in a nice hotel and be trained by renowned speakers from the United States and Canada and it was just a very positive thing,” he said. “I was very moved by it and I am very honored to even be a part of it.”
The theme of this year’s conference was President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and the 6 Pillars of U.S. Policing. Cotton’s class fell under Pillar No. 2: Policy and Oversight.
“The 21st Century Policing Taskforce was developed to help law enforcement agencies in the country, based on our democracy and constitutional standards that we have in the United States,” he said. “As I was preparing the course, I realized I’m talking to some of these countries are Muslim countries, they’re not true democracies in some cases. When I’m sitting there talking about our constitution, something as simple as our freedom of speech and assembly, which is guaranteed in our country, is not guaranteed in their countries and to explain that in a setting where they can get the understanding of what it is you’re trying to do, but understand that it may not be a right in their country, was kind of dicey, but I think we were able to pull it off.”
Cotton presented a class on “Community Engagement and Relationships” and highlighted Covington’s approach to citizen engagement through media and the CPD Citizen’s Police Academy. He, along with CPD Lt. Wendell Wagstaff, talked about how the CPA has helped bring the community into the department.
“The citizen’s academy has been a tremendous asset to us because if I can take a person, even maybe somebody that’s the most adversarial to what we do – in other words they just believe that all law enforcement is bad – if you give me enough time and they’ll at least open their minds up, I can show them a professional police department and the reasons why we do the things we do,” he said. “Usually, I can change their mindset to what police are really all about.”
Some countries in the conference, however, raised concerns about bringing the community into the department.
“Interestingly, the Indonesians were very concerned. Indonesia has a lot of internal terrorism problems and they were very concerned that if they had a citizen’s academy and these terrorists came posing as average citizens they would learn their tactics and things and how it can be used against them,” he said. “We had to explain to them that we’re not teaching them as a true academy like a police officer would go through, we just name it the academy, but that we’re giving generalizations of what we do. We’re not giving specifics of everything.
“I think that’s a concern that is legitimate in their world that people might try to infiltrate their police departments to use it against them because in those countries it is a national police force and their usually fighting terrorism on the streets, not like we do with the FBI dealing with tracking terrorist and capturing them ahead of time.”
Cotton said CPD is coming up on 35 years as an internationally accredited agency and attending these conferences helps give his officers a worldly view as they guard the streets of Covington.
“As much as we give out of our knowledge of law enforcement to the world, we also gain back internally different perspectives,” he said.
The experience, which Cotton called “eye-opening,” showed him just how fortunate we are to have the guaranteed rights we have in this country.
“In my trying to put this class together, I realized immediately how tied to our constitution the theories of what I was about to teach was directly related to our constitution,” he said. “It really brought home to me that we are so very fortunate. “
Cotton said his former police chief, Bobby Moody, taught him to get out of the city and Newton County and learn how other places police.
“I think that by exposing not only myself, because other command staff members have gone to Georgia and taught and most of the upper command staff has been to Israel and trained with the Israeli police, that it allows my command staff and realize that our issues that we have in our town, we can easily deal with them,” he said. “We’re not having to deal with, say, terrorism like the Israeli police are. We’re not having to deal with religious strife in another country that doesn’t guarantee the right to religion. We can deal with issues amongst our community, where in some countries they don’t even address domestic violence because traditionally if the man wants to harm the woman it’s viewed as ‘Well, that’s how it’s done,’ even through religion.
“I think it gives our command staff, who can then filter it down to the rest of officers, a worldly view of how our world operates.”
Cotton said with the changing population in Covington, the worldly view allows officers to know how to approach people differently.
“People always talk about having a diverse culture and we’re seeing that with more people moving to Covington and the Newton County area. We have all these international companies coming here” he said. “It better positions the Covington Police Department to deal with that because we’ve already been out and exposed ourselves to diverse cultures.”
The U.S. embassy in Tbilisi actively works with the Republic of Georgia, which used to be a member of the Soviet Union, to transform it into a democracy. This conference was fully funded by the U.S. embassy and Cotton and Wagstaff used personal vacation days for the trip.
“This doesn’t cost the citizens of Covington a penny,” he said.
Cotton said 13 countries were represented at the conference, including the Republic of Georgia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Ukraine, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tajikistan, Burma, Moldova, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Philippines and Montenegro.