John Cox started his first day on the Purdue University Police Department the same day former Purdue President Martin Jischke began his term: July 31, 2000.
Cox has spent the last 13 years of his career as Purdue’s police chief. While at Purdue, Cox continued training and he graduated from the FBI national academy in 2005.
Born in San Diego, California, in a Navy hospital, Cox moved to Benton County when he was 3 years old. He has lived on a family farm there ever since.
Cox turns 61 on the 23rd of this month. Eight days later, he officially steps down as police chief.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
I understand that you're stepping down from being police chief because you're running for sheriff.
Thirty-five-and-a-half years of wearing a vest in this town is long enough. I have the opportunity out there, I won the primary, and in Benton County there's nobody running against me in the fall. So I guess all I need to do is get one vote and I'll be the sheriff after the November elections.
How do your jobs differ now versus what you'll be doing in November, assuming you get at least one vote?
Being the chief of a university police department is just like being the chief at any other department with all of the nuances of working in the higher education community. It will differ when I become sheriff because I'll be leaving a community of about 100,000 people on any given day during a semester to work in a rural community of 9,000 and with a department that is smaller with a much more rural flavor, so I will be able to take all of the things that I have accumulated knowledge-base-wise over the years and be able to apply those in that new job.
What made you want to be a police officer in the first place?
I started my career at Purdue back in 1980, actually. I had attended Vincennes University for a short while, then came back, that wasn't for me. I started working for building services in 1980. I worked in the physical facilities from May of 1980 until January of 1987, when I joined the West Lafayette City Police Department. During the time that I was in the welding shop, I saw an article in the Journal and Courier about the West Lafayette Police Department looking for some reserves for their reserve program, and I was intrigued by that. So I applied for that and was accepted as a reserve officer. I did that for a couple of years and really enjoyed it.
So you've been on the Purdue police force for 22 years now. How have things changed on campus?
Oh, the landscape has changed a lot, both physically and every other way. When I first started here, we had a little over 30,000 students and not nearly as many facilities and buildings.
We still had the same issues; student theft, alcohol and drugs always seem to be the major problems. I don't think we were as up to speed on mental health in law enforcement as we are now. A lot of what I did as a patrol officer on nights was, obviously, work with the entire city, but when I was in District 1, which was the south end of the West Lafayette City police department jurisdiction. I pretty much dealt with the same type of situations that my officers do here on campus, and that is student issues, roommate issues, conduct, a lot of large parties, drug cases, fights, batteries, things like that. Today, we still deal with property crimes as probably the No. 1 issue that we deal with as a university. We lose thousands of dollars a year due to vandalism and theft, to university property and our students, faculty and staff lose thousands of dollars a year due to theft and vandalism, so that's kind of been a mirror of what that was.
I think one of the biggest differences is the rise in mental health (issues). I think law enforcement has become much more educated in the area of mental health and how to work with people who are suffering from mental health issues.
We dealt with mental health in a way that we can only control it, and that was if you were acting out, to address your behavior through the tools that we had and laws that we had and it was, disorderly conduct, or warning you for trespass if you are somewhere where you're not supposed to be. And ultimately it was to take you to jail, unless you were suffering from a mental health issue that was so severe that you were threatening to kill somebody or harm yourself. Then we would take you straight to an ER.
So if you're asking about what the biggest change is, that's been the biggest change is the increase in training that officers receive, you know, the adoption of the mental health training from NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and you know, our CIT officer — Crisis Intervention Team — training that we give our officers. We're very proud of that. We actually are one of the first departments in this area that sent a trainer down to Memphis, Tennessee, to attend the training down there and then brought it back.
I will tell you as students, faculty and staff, we were very fortunate to work, to live in this community because PUSH puts a lot of money and provides a lot of resources for mental health compared to what you'll find in a typical community out here. As a police department, we benefit from that, because we have CAPS. We have the dean of students Crisis Intervention Team. We have others around in the different colleges who work with mental health.
We're very blessed to have our own fire department that has two full-time paramedic ambulances that run out of the firehouse. That is very unusual in a large Division 1 school. So mental health is probably the biggest change that I've seen. Not only do we have the training to work with that, but we've also seen the identification of mental health issues in the community. So you've seen that growth, but you've also seen a growth in training that your professionals have.
Another issue that is rising in popularity, at least around the country, is a bigger use of marijuana. And we see that sometimes around our campus as well. What do you think about that rise? Do you think that Indiana might legalize it? Do you think it will start affecting our students more?
That's another great question and a huge conversation. Because there are those who believe that it should remain illegal or those who believe it should be legalized. Some, I hear, people speak to it as comparing it to back in the days of Prohibition with alcohol.
I think that that is something that in the state of Indiana is going to have to look at. I'm torn between the two: One, there are absolutely good medical reasons that people should do that. The flipside of that is, people don't always use it for the right reasons. And operating a motor vehicle while impaired can be by alcohol, by controlled substances, marijuana, other things like that. So it's a conversation that a lot of people have to have very carefully to make sure that if it is ever legalized, that we do it the right way.
The upside of legalizing it would be that it can be more controlled and safer, in my opinion. We see a lot of the illegal narcotics that are sold.
We see fentanyl and a lot of things that get laced in some of these things. And we're having people die not realizing what's in those things.
You have to look at the data. It's just like our football stadium up here. One of the biggest issues that we had in Ross Ade Stadium with alcohol was when we didn't sell it in the stadium, you couldn't have in the stadium. We would have people that come to the game, they would binge drink. Then we're responding to subjects passed out in their seat, somebody passed out in the bathroom, subject vomiting here, fights started because they're really intoxicated, minors consuming alcohol.
So when Athletics started selling alcohol I was kind of apprehensive about that, that it was going to exacerbate that problem. But what it actually did was it solved that problem.
So, when (Athletic Director) Mike Bobinski was talking to folks about it later, we pulled the data out after the first year. I'm like, “This is amazing.” I'm like, “This worked. I mean, we're literally not having alcohol issues in our stadium and we're selling alcohol in our stadium.” I go back to lessons learned, we're talking about legalizing marijuana. You really need to look at the data you need. Because there's pros and cons to both.
So, campus, as you mentioned earlier, has grown quite a bit since you've been on the police force here. Has the police force since you came here grown to compensate for that, and do you think that will continue to grow?
It needs to grow. We are able to do what we do because we have great partnerships between Lafayette, Tippecanoe County sheriff and West Lafayette city PD. We are all very interactive. We are on the same turf as West Lafayette and so we will often collect resources to be able to deal with issues. It's not unusual to see a city officer stop on a traffic stop to help a Purdue officer and vice versa. Because we were annexed by the city, there are some areas that are our city and so we are even working closer together.
So we need to continue to grow. If you look at per capita, officer per students, we have one of the lower ratios, so we have a lot more students, staff and faculty per police officer than a lot of Big 10 schools. Like I said we can operate that way because we have West Lafayette city here to help us. But as the university has grown, we need to continue to grow, to make sure that we have enough police officers on the streets. … Right now, we're short officers.
So, for the next chief and for the leadership for the police department administrative operations, they're going to have to find ways to add officers to keep up with the growth. University has a global footprint. The only threats to our campus aren't just alcohol- and drug-related. We have cyber crimes that occur. Here we have a lot of research. Some of it is classified. And that means our department has to have officers that get those clearances to be able to protect or provide security in those areas. And so we right now have 45 officers and we need to grow.
Have you noticed how students throughout the years change?
So I think the two biggest changes that I have seen are the inability for students to connect with each other and problem solve, and then I've seen these, like we mentioned, mental health issues. So, I'll give you an example.
We had a situation here a few short years ago where we had two roommates from our residence halls having a conflict over one consuming the other's Ritz crackers, and they literally were in the same building, and at one point in the same space, texting each other about “Stop eating my Ritz crackers” and “Oh, I didn't know they were yours.” “If you don't stop eating my Ritz crackers, I'm gonna kick your butt.” And, “Oh, are you threatening me?” And they're doing this back and forth. So ultimately the one who felt threatened called the police. So we show up over there. We get both roommates together. They had never spoken to each other other than texted back and forth. Twenty years ago, they wouldn't have been texting each other. It would have been an argument, the RA might have been involved.
So now what we're doing is we're getting these, I call this, the digital communication. Instead of having these one-on-one conversations and problem-solving, I see the generations that come in now have less capabilities to problem-solve. Then when I first started in this industry, and I think a lot of that has to do with the way that we use screens and digital technology and then the other, like I said, I don't think we were as trained in the area of mental health.
So you've obviously overseen the police force for quite some time now. What are some notable events that have happened under your watch?
I came in at the end of the President Beering era and I went through President Jischke and then Còrdova, and now Daniels’ presidency. Each brought their own flavor, each drove the university in a different way, which shifts how we provide security. We’ve seen bigger events, our athletics programs have grown, our STEM programs have grown, our step into bio research, different Department of Defense-type of things and others that have come along. We've seen the growth in the aerospace industry out here. So I think that's some of the most notable changes for me and how we police this community. It's not just going out on the road and stopping speeding cars and writing parking tickets and and doing that. We’re literally involved in things that you would find in any given city in any part of the United States.
We've had some real tragedies on campus. We've had some devastating plane crashes, we've had some deaths, and those will always stand out as significant events to me. And then we have had some real celebrations that the police department have been part of as far as not only improvement of infrastructure like the remodeling of State Street and Stadium Avenue, but the building and opening of some buildings on campus, renovations and football stadiums and things like that, that brought amenities to campus that brought more people to us and increased the number of people on our campus to sizes we had never seen before, which began to stretch our ability to be able to respond.
So what about events like the Adonis Tuggle incident that happened in February? Have there been discussions among officers about that and the public reaction to that or more training?
So obviously there’s been a lot of conversation. As a university, we brought on the body worn video. I think the university will have to decide how they want to use that in the future.
Obviously, we wanted to push it out right away, which would create transparency between the police department and the community that we serve. So then people could see it, firsthand for themselves. Right? Because, a 50-second snippet of video doesn't really give you the context or show the whole event. I think there's always room to improve. I will tell you our officers are very well trained. Our officers typically get somewhere between 60 and 100 hours of training, and the state only mandates 24.
We're always looking at opportunities to partner, and so I think that at the end of the day, there have been few incidents like that, that have shaped the department to what it is. And I think everybody has an opportunity to improve, but I think that what the community needs to know is that the department is very well trained.
We have led the way in training de-escalation across the campus to others. We train it already internally before February came along, so a lot of the things that were talking about, we already have instituted.
I think the lesson learned out of that was for me that you know, the quicker you can get the video out and the quicker that you can be more transparent with the community, the better off you are. It takes all of the rumor out of it. And so I think that, from that standpoint, I think university needs to decide how they're going to use our body-worn videos going forward. I mean, there's obviously laws and things like that around it and privacy issues and things like that. But for the most part, the reason we brought that on, we were the last department in Tippecanoe County that didn't have it. And so I think any police department that's policing in 2022 that doesn't have some sort of body videos is behind the times.
How did the officers react to public public opinions after that, that case particularly, but other ones like it?
It's been a tough few years for law enforcement, right? The problem is often in a community, say, a community in Benton County or a community in White County, whatever. I mean, the population isn't transient. It's very much stable. So the community knows their police officers, they know the history of their officers. They know all that.
At a university like Purdue, you have a transient population. Most are here for four years and move on. And so they're coming from all over the world. And they all have their own opinion or their own lens or their own experience with law enforcement, right? And I think what the most frustrating part was for our officers was that people were applying those lenses and those experiences to us. They may have had a situation in Cleveland or Los Angeles or Shreveport or someplace like that, that was either very good or very bad. And so they are automatically painting our officers with that same brush, which isn't fair. I understand why. But I have said in conversations for a number of years now that it is our responsibility as a police department and a community to find ways to get together to connect, to get to know each other. We need to go to and be involved in different Boiler Gold Rush programming. We need to be involved in things with PSG and PGSG. We need to, in my opinion, have more of a social media presence on our campus. We try to do what we can to get things out through our marketing media teams.
But there's almost not a day that doesn't go by during the semesters that I don't get at least a text or something from somebody that wants to tell me, “Thank you for what the officer did.” I had, recently, a picture sent to me and one of our guys helping change a tire down here. We never make a big deal about that. It was important to that family. But we probably need to do a better job of pushing that out there.
You mentioned earlier that some tragedies do happen. Some students do end up dying on campus. What's it like dealing with that as a police officer?
It's always hard. It's one thing to lose a loved one when it's expected. It's another thing to lose a loved one when it's not. Unfortunately, when we lose a faculty member or staff member, students on our campus, it's usually not expected, so it's typically a big shock to the community. We reach out to our dean of students office, we reach out to our HR, we reach out to a provost office where we share words from a faculty member or staff member or student. Those areas that are connected with that person to get them up to speed and let them know what happened so they can provide resources to others. It's hard. It's a sad conversation with parents, when we're talking to parents about students who have lost their life.
But we're trained to be compassionate and also to work through the process. I was a coroner for eight years out in Benton County. I've been a police officer for 35 years. And there's never been an easy time to tell somebody that they've lost a loved one. You just have to make sure you have resources available and ready to respond to help whomever is adversely affected, and that could be the entire student body. Such as, we had the loss of like over in EE in 2014 (when a student killed another). And that was a very public campus event. And it took a long time and a lot of effort and a lot of interconnecting to heal and to walk us through that.
Another thing that you highlighted earlier is that there are a lot of people who aren't from around here. Specifically, there's a lot of international students who don't necessarily know the laws as well. How do you handle that as a police force?
We are constantly trying to find ways to connect with our international communities. We work through … ISS. We try to connect with our cultural centers to make sure that we're available or at least have some sort of presence with them.
Purdue Village is slowly disappearing, but that was kind of our housing area for a lot of international families. So we would spend some time out in Purdue Village to be able to connect with our families out there. Because you're right. I mean, our international community comes to us with all sorts of different ideas about what law enforcement is.
In a lot of countries their military is the police. I've had the opportunity to talk to a lot of international students over the years who had fantastic experiences with their law enforcement at home, and I have had stories that would just shock you about some of the connections they've had with their law enforcement communities at home. And it helped me understand why they are like they are and what they believe we have. We've had international students who hear hazard tornado warning sirens go off and call dispatch and ask if we're being attacked because they think they’re air raid sirens. So we have to be very aware.
We have good connections over at our Islamic Center, especially with everything going on overseas, some of the threats that they've had to their facilities and stuff, so we're very connected to them. And Capt. Song Kang is one of the more senior leaders that is responsible for making those connections and keeping those communication lines open.
Going back, a little bit more broadly, to the student body. What have been the biggest challenges in policing on campus?
Challenges? I think it's just understanding the differences as the generations change as they come through. In many ways, you're all alike. And in many ways, you're all very different. I would say that each generation comes with its new challenges to learn. I think that the digital world that we live in has shaped a lot of our very youngest, and in those that will be coming I think one of our biggest challenges because of size of our university is getting out and getting to know our 50-something-thousand students and try to connect with them in some way that's meaningful so that they have some sort of experience as positive. I think that as the campus continues to grow, finding ways to connect with students and students finding ways to connect with us will continue to be one of our biggest challenges.
Do you have any advice for people who would be interested in going into law enforcement?
To go into law enforcement, you have to look at it as something you want to do as a career. It's not just a job. Because it's not an easy position to hold. So it's got to be in your heart. You have to have to be in it for the right reasons. You hear all the typical “because I want to serve the community.” You know, “I want to help people” and all of that. But law enforcement nowadays is really bigger than that. It's about taking time to learn your community, taking time to put yourself out there to let them know who you are. It's being able to be a great communicator and know when to flip that switch to when you need to become the warrior versus when you need to be the guardian and what that means to the community that you serve. Sometimes that does mean you have to take people to jail. That doesn't mean you always do.
What would you say to those people who dislike or distrust law enforcement?
There are some people that are based on their experiences, no matter what we say or do, we're not going to change their mind about how they feel about law enforcement. You know, it's an 80-20 rule. That 10% will love you no matter what, 10% will hate you no matter what, but the 80% are the ones that every day you've come to work that you serve, those are the ones that you'll influence one way or the other. And so, to those that don't like law enforcement, what I would say is: Get to know your local law enforcement officers, don't base your opinions off national narratives or stories out of some big cities somewhere in some part of the US or the world. Typically in your local communities, your smaller local communities, especially in your communities that serve universities, your law enforcement officers are very tuned in two students, staff and faculty.
Do you have any advice for new students?
I would say if you see an officer get to know him, say hi. We're in the residence halls and dining halls. We're out on north academic campus. We're everywhere. We're a resource. Take advantage of your time here to get to know your community if you're interested. Think about joining our Purdue student security patrol. See what it's like if you have a bad experience, report it.
What kind of advice would you have for the next chief of police?
Find a work-life balance. This job will chew you up and spit you out. There are a lot of different responsibilities that don't fall on a typical city chief or sheriff or its Clery (federal reporting) obligations, timely warnings and emergency notifications. I have 50,000 students and probably 100,000-plus loved ones that care about those 50,000 that look to me to provide a level of security and safety. And you have to balance all that. I probably work 80 hours a week. And that's whether I'm here, I'm home, I'm on the phone, I'm on the computer. And what I would say is that the university needs to provide the support to that chief.
What do the rest of your days here in the office look like?
So I have eight working days left. I am off next year. So talk about work-life balance. Obviously I live in Benton County, we live on a family farm, about 400 acres in it. Our family is blended. And all of our kids have gone through, living out there on the farm. Many have gone through 4H. I happen to be the superintendent of the Benton County 4H goat barn and I am a fair board member. And so for eight or nine days, I'll be on vacation, and I will be a goat barn superintendent and a fair board member running the Benton County Fair.
What do you expect your life will look like as sheriff?
So, I'm going to go from a staff of 65 down to a staff of 15. I think that I will get even more work-life balance back. I think I will be able to work 40 hours a week, be able to go home at night and not answer emails and phone calls all evening and at 1, 3 and 5 a.m. So I think that will be good for me. I think that these next five months I'm going to make up for a lot of the things that my wife asked me to do like remodeling the floors in the kitchen and dining room and the laundry room and spend time with our youngest. Out of our five kids, our daughter Kate is an eighth-grader in Benton Central, and so I will be taking her to school and maybe helping a local farmer drive a tractor or grain truck this fall. And then on Jan. 1 of ’23 I will take over as the sheriff up there. I think I will play a little more golf and be home every night.