Some evenings, after Stacey Cotton has gone home to his newly constructed house in Mansfield, he and his wife return to the Covington square. As a Newton County resident, Cotton appreciates the bustling scene—outdoor dining at Your Pie, painting parties at Wild Art, hand-holding teens at Scoops, music drifting from the rooftop of the Mystic Grill.
But as the longtime chief of the Covington Police Department, Cotton can’t help but absorb the scene from a different perspective. Over 30 years of helming one of Georgia’s most highly trained police departments will do that to you.
People note the restaurant sign advertising tonight’s special; Cotton’s gaze drifts upward and wishes there was a security camera mounted above the door, one more set of eyes on the square. Teens post selfies to Facebook; Cotton sees social media as a quickly evolving tool in the fight against crime, a way to get word out quickly. A mom holds her kids’ hands and watches a police cruiser rolling slowly by, unaware the officer is keeping an eye on the screen of the LPR—license plate reader—in his car as it streams real-time information of every car in front of him, advising whether it’s stolen.
When Stacey Cotton was tapped as police chief in 1997, security cameras, tag scanners and Facebook were barely blips on the horizon. But the world—and Covington—is different now. The resident population is 14,000, but the daytime population swells to close to 40,000, and not all of those people have the city’s best interests in mind. “This is one of the things we’re trying to wrap our arms around,” says Cotton, observing that a fair amount of crime in Covington is instigated by people from outside of town. “Nothing beats good old police work, but technology, video cameras, using social media to reach out and get leads—this is all relatively new in policing.”
Cotton is among a unique breed of Georgia police chiefs, first and foremost because he has held onto a job that statistically should only have been his for 2.5 years, according to state and national averages. “I’m hiring guys now who weren’t even born when I was named chief,” he says.
Cotton is acutely aware you don’t keep your chief’s badge for two decades by shooting from the hip, that there’s always the chance a political target could be taped to his back. His remarkable longevity and ability to navigate sometimes dicey political waters has enabled him to outlast four mayoral administrations and numerous city council members. To some, it may simply be political instinct, but the chief doesn’t go there, insisting instead that departmental performance trumps politics. “The fact is,” he says, “is that the city has allowed this department to be a professional agency. I get tremendous support from the city.”
It’s an assessment echoed by Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Chiefs of Police. “Covington is unique in that the city has always made sure that the department is not limited in training,” says Rotondo. “I don’t think there is any question that Covington has been a leader in policy development and Stacey has been a leader in that field.”
The numbers speak for themselves. The roster boasts 57 college degrees among 35 officers who routinely blast through the state-required minimum training standards by a factor of 10 or more. This level of commitment enabled the force to handle 36,429 calls for service in 2016. Violent crime is up slightly, property crimes are down and the total number of incidents is up only 4.2 percent from a previous high in 2014. While the chief says the department could use nine more officers and is in dire need of new HQ, he has not made a public issue of it, typical of his style.
Most people know Cotton as the plain-spoken cop—“a regular guy,” Rotondo says—who has called Covington home since he was five. He spends his spare time “turning wrenches” on his 1937 vintage Chevy racing car and named his sons Kyle and Kole—if you were a NASCAR addict, you’d understand. But underestimate Cotton at your own peril. In addition to his Mercer University degree, he possesses two master’s degrees, and is a graduate of the FBI Academy. The son of a federal judge, Cotton is at home on the back roads of Newton County as he is on the streets of Amsterdam, the rolling hills of Italy or the green dales of Scotland. Another country he knows well is the Republic of Georgia, where he has been invited five times to teach law enforcement. Want to discuss active shooter scenarios? He’s your man. Need the name of a great café in the Netherlands, give him a call.
In any event, despite 30 years total on the force, the chief is still several years from retirement. “I’ll know when it’s time to go,” he says. “I don’t plan to be the old man in the corner office.” Until then, he says, “Every day is a good day. If you love what you’re doing, you never go to work.”
Rob Levin is president and editor of a book publishing company in Covington and is a former national feature writer for the Atlanta Constitution.