Cook calls first year ‘gratifying'

Chief Avery Cook talks to a West Point resident outside the police department.
Staff Writer

He’s quiet and unassuming. Seldom does he raise his voice. He’d rather listen than talk. He tries not to promise what he can’t deliver.

And if he didn’t have to, he wouldn’t spend much time speaking in front of the Board of Selectmen.

Instead, he’d rather let his officers get the attention and be in the spotlight. But his staff knows who is the boss. And they respect his approach.

When he celebrated his 56th birthday Saturday, the staff posted on the department’s Facebook page, “Happy birthday chief, thanks for leading by example.”

And the community knows who he is.

Just walk down the street with him.

“Chief,” a driver yells through an open car window.

“Hey,” another cries out.

Almost every driver and passenger waves.

It’s been a year since Avery Cook was named West Point police chief. And by most accounts, it’s been a pretty good year.

“We’ve accomplished a lot of the things we set out to do. You have to have a vision, we worked to obtain our goals based on that vision,” the 18-year law enforcement veteran said.

‘We’ve had some bumps and groans. You always will with new leadership and systems. But most of it has worked itself out,” the West Point native continued.

Cook had an advantage in knowing the community and the department.

After 21 years in the Army, rising to the rank of sergeant, Cook got into law enforcement, joining the West Point department. He spent his career there, then spent five years as a top administrator at the Clay County Sheriff’s Department before being named chief.

And that wasn’t a dream, just a matter of working hard to earn an opportunity.

“I think the time was right for him and the community. It all just sort of worked out. He was the right choice, the obvious choice,” one city insider said of the Board of Selectmen’s decision to bring Cook back as chief.

“He was the perfect temperament, the perfect experience, everything for the job. And the last year has proven that,” added a veteran officer with another agency who has watched the West Point department closely.

“You can feel it in the community. It’s just something there. And the officers I know feel good about where they work and what they do. The morale is really good,” said Sally Shields, who works in the city.

Cook’s goals included increasing the staff, getting more involved in the community and schools, updating vehicles and computers, and getting a new shooting range.

He’s been able to check almost every one off the list.

For instance, he took over a department with 21 officers. He knew it needed 32 to be efficient and effective. He’s at 32 now.

“We’ve got a good department, a young department but a good department, a bunch of young officers who’ve put in their time and want to make it better,” the chief said. “The more officers we have on the street, the more vigilant we can be, the more we can be seen.”

The department has been putting together its own shooting range on the old landfill property owned by the city off Old White Road. It’s almost complete and will save officers from having to go to Columbus to a range for certification. He’s made a dent in the number of older, high-mileage cars driven by officers and a grant helped upgrade computers.

The department has expanded its community outreach, something those on the outside have noticed. It’s come in a variety of ways, from a back-to-school bash, complete with free backpacks, to giving out candy at Halloween, a long tradition that had faded.

Officers have spoken to churches and helped them craft security plans. The department puts on concealed-carry classes for those who want to get gun permits.

Working with the schools, the number of resource officers went from from one to three this year and Cook’s vision is to have an officer in every school as early as next year.

It’s not about crime there, it’s about relationship building.

“Relationships with the community are very important to law enforcement. That’s a key to preventing and stopping crime, having kids and parents trusting in the department, in the police,” he explained.
“Everyone wants to live in and feel safe in their community.

“Having officers in schools is starting a long-term partnership with kids who will grow up into adults. And you’d be amazed at the things kids hear and see and can tell you,” he continued.

While some police departments in the region have had trouble developing that kind of partnership with residents, Cook said it’s come naturally in West Point. It’s one of many things he attributes to the community and to city leaders.

“People here are friendly and respectful. They know their neighbors, they know their church members, you have relationships. We have our crimes, a lot of them are petty crimes, and we try to stop them. If we could solve all of them, we’d be rich…or unemployed,” he surmised.

He salutes the Board of Selectmen and Mayor Robbie Robinson for their support.

“We have a good board. They’ve made what we’ve done possible. They worked hard to help find the money to get the staff up, to get pay up, to build the department,” Cook praised.

But he’s had surprises and frustrations, both along the same issues.

“The community has been very supportive. It’s been gratifying. When we’ve done things, people have just called and said what do we need or what can they get for us. At Halloween, people called and said when did they need to bring the candy by. We didn’t have to reach out to them, the community just did it. That means so much,” the chief stated.

“If we have a crime, the phone will ring off the hook with leads. That’s the way it’s supposed to work and it makes me feel good, makes me appreciate where we live and work. And I know it does for the officers, too,” Cook described. “It’s easier working in a community like West Point because of the support.”

The frustration has been the inability to solve every crime.

“You want to help people out, you know what they are going through. When you exhaust every lead, run every angle and still can’t help that person, it is frustrating,” he lamented.

While continuing to build on the foundation that’s been started, he hopes the department can earn its state accreditation. Continued training and keeping officers also is a goal. Seasoned, well-trained officers pay big dividends in community knowledge and critical relationships.

“We don’t want to start over,” he said.

His military experience and getting into law enforcement later in life provided some perspective and helped shape his leadership style.

“It’s not always easy, you are going to have some growing pains,” he said, sitting in front of an almost perfectly organized desk.

“You can’t satisfy everyone and you have to understand that and realize that. You have to take the good with the bad and try to make the bad better.

“You try to listen. Many times it’s just common sense. As long as decisions are made and based on public safety, what best for the whole community, it will be all right,” he concluded.