As Police Chief Earl Cook prepares to hang up his Alexandria Police Department uniform for the last time this week, it’s worth taking some time to consider the impact he has made on the city over his nearly four decades of service.
Born and raised in Alexandria, Cook was a member of the famed 1971 “Remember the Titans” football team and graduated from T.C. Williams. And although he went away to attend Duke University, he said he always planned to return to the city and give back to a community he loved.
And return he did, enrolling in the police department’s academy in 1979. Since then, Cook has seen everything — from drug epidemics and homicides to the broad daylight shooting of a police officer — and has handled it all with composure and leadership.
Although Cook rose through the ranks over the decades, it wasn’t until 2009 that he was appointed to be the first black police chief in the department’s history. The agency was dealing with the fallout of the resignation of Cook’s predecessor following a drunk-driving arrest, but Cook quickly proved to be up to the challenge of running a police force responsible for the safety of a population of 150,000.
Cook became known for his involvement in the community. Each year, he reminded residents that detectives still were actively investigating the 2003 slaying of Nancy Dunning until Charles Severance was arrested and convicted last year in connection with the murders of Dunning, Ronald Kirby and Ruthanne Lodato. And he was always quick to brief the community and hear their concerns after other violent crimes as well.
Residents also have known Cook for his hands-on approach. When a restaurant employee recently refused to serve one of his officers, Cook went to the business himself to handle the situation. And a former Times editor once recounted how when he got into a minor car accident in the city, Cook stopped by the scene of the crash to make sure he was OK.
And in an era where police shootings of black suspects has drawn greater scrutiny, unlike police chiefs in other jurisdictions, Cook has erred on the side of transparency.
After city police shot and killed Taft Sellers at the end of an armed standoff in 2013, Cook ordered an investigation, and afterward held community meetings to discuss the findings with residents.
Cook represents both the best in policing and the best of Alexandria. His love for the city is clear both from the length of his tenure in service to it, and how he goes about his job.
As City Manager Mark Jinks continues his search for the city’s next police chief — and as Deputy Chief David Huchler serves in the role temporarily — he should look for someone with the same qualities of hard work, transparency and community involvement that Cook personifies.
These are very big shoes to fill, but they are ones that Cook deserves to be able to finally take off.
Thank you, Chief.