ETSU police chief thankful for 40-year law enforcement career

Becky Campbell • Jun 24, 2018 at 6:26 PM

Even with 17 years as Chief of Police at East Tennessee State University, Jack Cotrel isn’t the longest serving chief in the department, but he might be the longest serving officer on the books.

Later this week, 43 years after Cotrel started with ETSU as a patrol officer, he’s taking off his badge and heading home. His successor, Nicole Collins, will be waiting in the wings to take the reins of the department.

When Cotrel joined ETSU in 1975 he was the 17th police officer on the roster. Today, he leads a staff of 21 sworn police officers and several civilian employees.

There have been changes over the years — ETSU was a public safety department during the time Johnson City police worked as PSOs — but returned to be a traditional police department when that model was discontinued at the city.

Prior to making his way to East Tennessee, a friend of the the West Virginia native set him up on a blind date with a woman from Newport, who he later married. He joined the Air Force in 1967 and flew 179 combat missions as a tail gunner in a B-52. After the military, the couple settled in Johnson City for Cotrel to attend school. After graduating from ETSU, he worked for the Tennessee Law Enforcement Planning Agency, but returned to ETSU in 1975 as a police officer.

Cotrel worked his way up through the ranks, served 13 years as the assistant police chief to then-Chief Larry Keplinger, then was named chief in December 2001. He led the department to become an accredited agency.

“It’s been an amazing career,” Cotrel said last week. “How many people have the opportunity to have a role in building a department.”

The department’s staff is filled with people Cotrel hired, which he said is a cohesive team that keeps students safe while on campus. His officers answer 3,000 to 4,000 calls for service each year, including theft, medical calls  and fire calls, which mostly turn out to be burned food, he said.

In recent years, the number of sexual assault cases reported have increased, but “there was a concerted effort to get victims to come forward.”

In addition to patrol officers who respond to any call for service on campus, the department has two administrative officers, a bike patrol, a school resource officer at University High and criminal investigators.

“When you call 911 from a campus phone, you get us,” he said. “My hope was to see our 911 calls turned over to Johnson City. I think it will happen, but it won’t happen on my watch.”

The ETSU police force has kept up with law enforcement technology. Officers carry tasers, which gives them a less-than-lethal option if needed, and the record-keeping system is now paperless. ETSU uses the same smart phone reporting technology used by the Johnson City Police Department and Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

Cotrel has been active in the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, and was honored in 2013 when he received the Director’s Choice award for the eastern division of the state.  He was the first campus police chief to serve on the Chief’s Association board of directors.

“Our acceptance has evolved,” Cotrel said. “We follow the exact same structure as any other law enforcement agency,’

Cotrel said the biggest, and most disturbing, case his department worked was the April 13, 2002, carjacking, kidnapping and murder of James Norwood, 19, who was an ETSU freshman The two men arrested and convicted in Norwood’s death, Joey Goins and Justin Jones, wanted Norwood’s car so they could rob a bank in Bristol. They were also involved in another murder in Bristol.

“That was a prime example of inner-agency cooperation,” Cotrel said. We had FBI, TBI, Johnson City, Washington County, Bristol ... we actually had a task force.” Just as police were closing in on an arrest, Goins turned himself over to police.

Cotrel said he will miss the people he works with, but is looking forward to retirement. His wife retired from her nursing job at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center several years ago, and he said “it was just time,” for him to do the same.

“Without question, the people, the interaction with the guys and gals here,” is what he’ll miss. “We have a good staff,” he said. Cotrel said he and his wife plan to do some travel and spend time with their their children, grandchildren and great grandchild.

“I’m very thankful for the relationships I’ve been able to build over the years. Not only here on campus, but in the community. That’s been a real blessing,” he said. “I feel like the good Lord has really taken care of me.”


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