By Chris Teale (File photo)
The Alexandria Police Department will look very different beginning Saturday, as Police Chief Earl Cook officially retires and ends his nearly four decades of service to the city.
A graduate of T.C. Williams High School, Cook joined the department as a police academy recruit in 1979. He was appointed chief in August 2009 after three decades of working his way up the ranks.
And despite devoting a large part of his life to serving Alexandria and being a part of the police department, Cook said retiring is the right decision.
“I’m comfortable with the retirement, a little bit more worried when I thought about what it will feel like actually disengaged from this particular organization, because I’ve been around it for more than half my life,” he said. “You hear people all the time say, ‘A cop is a cop is a cop.’ You’re imprinted with it.”
But things could have gone very differently for Cook after he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and education at Duke University. He said he had always planned to return to Alexandria, but quite easily could have gone into teaching or coaching sports.
An athlete in his youth, Cook played cornerback and returned kicks for the 1971 T.C. Williams football team that won the state championship and was immortalized in the Disney movie “Remember the Titans.”
It took what Cook called “the greatest flip of a coin ever” to decide to go into policing, a decision he did not take lightly given his desire to shape people’s lives in a positive way.
“I liked the interaction with young people, I was very interested in that. But in all seriousness, it’s a very noble profession,” Cook said. “I knew I was going to go into public service, but the idea of teaching is exciting as people get into it, trying to develop people.
“But I found when I did get into law enforcement, I was interested in the sheer freedom of being able to go out and interact with people for eight, 10, 12 hours a day.”
After graduating from the police academy, Cook began in patrol and criminal investigations with the department.
But the early 1980s were a difficult time in Alexandria and the entire D.C. region, as the area struggled with the widespread use of crack cocaine and the associated violence as drug gangs sought to assert themselves.
And while Cook said he was not necessarily scared of what he might face on the job — due to what he called the “risk gene” that made him more inclined to face such tough situations — it was a difficult time.
“The drug violence and the drug money drives the violent crime,” Cook said. “When you see the effect on your citizens and what’s going on for those people and their families who are involved in that, it’s devastating. If you’re working the street, you really had to be careful. You really had to look out, because there were so many people who unfortunately were using and addicted to the drugs, and there was a lot of violence and weapons associated with it.”
Cook’s work in patrol and criminal investigations lasted until 1989, and over the next six years he was promoted several times into leadership roles. As assistant chief, he managed the criminal investigations bureau, and three years later he was named deputy chief, managing the same bureau.
His elevation to chief came under difficult circumstances, as former Police Chief David Baker resigned in July 2009 following a drunk-driving arrest. Cook said there was a great sadness across the department, but officers him helped him get acclimated quickly to manage more than 400 uniformed and civilian personnel.
“I wanted the opportunity to lead this organization,” Cook said. “Ultimately, you want to see whether or not you can effect positive change and continuity and build on what you have. The challenge of that is what was attractive to me.”
As chief, Cook presided over a sustained reduction in violent crime and led the organization through a number of high-profile homicide investigations.
On each anniversary of the 2003 slaying of Nancy Dunning, Cook said it would not become a cold case, and he eventually was vindicated as Charles Severance was convicted in November 2015 for killing Dunning, piano teacher Ruthanne Lodato and transportation planner Ronald Kirby.
Despite those achievements, as well as officially opening the department’s new headquarters and unveiling a memorial last year dedicated to the 18 police officers killed in the line of duty, Cook refused to take credit for anything.
“I can’t think of a time when something happened for the department that wasn’t part of the collective,” he said. “You really don’t get true success in this type of organization if collectively you aren’t working and pulling in the same direction. I can’t think of a single thing that I would say that without someone with the proper guidance and not getting in their way,that we couldn’t have achieved.”
City Manager Mark Jinks intends to have a permanent successor in place by the end of the year, and Cook said he expects the department to continue its good work, regardless of who takes over.
“Whoever the next chief is will come into a well-run police department because of the people who are running it, not because of the chief of police,” Cook said. “We’ve got great staff, we hire good people, we try and keep a responsible accountable police force, and at the same time people are hopefully enjoying doing this type of work.”