Sergeant Steve Cogger has worked for the same Chicago-area police agency since 1990. In his 24-year career, he has performed a wide variety of law enforcement functions, from crime scene technician to detective to administrator, among many others. His first love, however, is patrol work, where he gets to interact with the community he serves and often be first on the scene to offer help.
Although he has been a faculty mentor in CalSouthern’s criminal justice program for just over a year, these same traits—the desire to engage meaningfully with others and to use his expertise to help others—have already distinguished Sergeant Cogger as an exceptional mentor.
We spoke with Sergeant Cogger to learn more about his career, trends in criminal justice, qualities essential to effective law enforcement work, as well as his reflections on online education.
California Southern University: You’ve had a long and distinguished career in law enforcement. Where did your initial interest in the field come from?
Sergeant Steve Cogger: I’m actually the first in my family to be involved in law enforcement in any way, shape or form. It was something of a shock to my father when I graduated from college with a business degree and chose to pursue a career in criminal justice.
I was fascinated at an early age with public service, specifically fire and police work. I suppose that fascination was sparked in large part by television. The ’70s was something of golden era of police and public service shows, from CHiPs to Emergency, Baretta, Kojack, Columbo—even Barney Miller—I loved them all. Then, in high school, I started reading the crime writer Joseph Wambaugh (The Onion Field, Police Story). Looking back, it seems a little silly, but this is where my interest in the field probably began. And I bet I’m not alone in this regard.
CalSouthern: Your career has been quite varied, too. What are some of the responsibilities you have taken on at your agency?
Sergeant Cogger: I’ve worked in critical incident response, investigations, administration and juvenile justice. I’ve also been a crime scene technician and supervised a dispatch center, among other responsibilities. Currently, I’m on the night shift as a patrol sergeant.
CalSouthern: Is it typical to fulfill so many roles? Do you enjoy taking on different responsibilities?
Sergeant Cogger: At a small agency like the one I work for (my agency is comprised of less than 30 officers) it’s common to take on a variety of roles throughout your career. With limited manpower, officers need to share the responsibility to make sure that all functions are handled and handled well. At larger agencies, it’s more common to choose a route for your career and then follow that path.
I should point out, however, that I have sought out a number of these different jobs, as well. I’ve enjoyed taking on multiple roles. It’s been good for my career to gain exposure, training and experience in so many different aspects of police work.
CalSouthern: Of all these different roles, which have been your favorites? Why?
Sergeant Cogger: Without question, my favorite job is being a patrol sergeant. I’ve always been drawn to being someone that people turn to for help—even back when I was a kid and helping friends with their homework or fixing their bikes. The patrol function is the part of law enforcement that the community sees and has contact with. It gives you the privilege and responsibility of being the first one on the scene, the first to be able to offer help.
I have always found it extremely rewarding to provide some comfort to someone who’s been a victim of a crime or to offer a solution to someone who’s experiencing a problem in their neighborhood. For me, it’s the best part of law enforcement work.
CalSouthern: Over the course of your career, what are some of the most significant changes to law enforcement that you have seen?
Sergeant Cogger: All the biggest changes have been technology related, which can probably be said for most professions. The evolution of in-car video recording is a specific example. We use that every day now and it is an invaluable tool. When I first started, there was no video at all. Then, in the mid to late ’90s we implemented a somewhat cumbersome model that utilized VHS tape. Within the last six to seven years, we’ve gone to a digital system where the recording is wirelessly transmitted back to the station where it is immediately accessible (and portable, when burned to a DVD). The evolution of the video function has been huge.
Beyond that, computer technology has enabled us to do seemingly everything from our cars now. We can write reports and citations electronically. We can do internet-enabled research to assist us in our work. There are so many applications in use today and the potential is almost limitless.
Here’s another key change. When I started, most agencies—especially municipal agencies—required no more than a high school degree. Now, it’s very unusual to find any law-enforcement agency that will hire someone without a degree.
CalSouthern: What trends do you see today or anticipate emerging in the near future?
Sergeant Cogger: We’re seeing the consolidation of police services, which I believe is a predominantly economics-driven trend. For example, Miami and Las Vegas are two areas where there are now large metro police departments that encompass a number of suburbs and smaller municipalities. This is to be contrasted with the traditional model, as we see here in the Chicago area, where these smaller communities tend to have their own police departments.
We’ve also seen consolidation in other areas, too, such as reporting. In the greater Chicago region, reports all feed into the same, county-wide system, so we can have access to other agencies’ reports if we need them, which is really part of a greater trend toward pooling and sharing data.
LiveScan, for example, is a computer technology that allows us to digitally scan fingerprints and get identification of an unknown suspect or victim within minutes, whereas before it might have taken days. We would take ink fingerprints and scan them and send them to the FBI—LiveScan is a great efficiency. It’s been around for more than a decade, but it’s a good example of how improved data sharing can lead to vastly enhanced efficiency.
CalSouthern: For our students and potential students who are interested in the field, is it a good time to be pursuing a career in law enforcement?
Sergeant Cogger: I think there’s reason to be optimistic about future hiring trends. There’s always a need for sworn law enforcement officers and federal agencies are always hiring. There are a number of functions that are being civilianized and which show lots of promise. For example, civilian crime scene technicians represent a growth area.
CalSouthern: What are some common traits or characteristics you see among people who are successful in law enforcement?
Sergeant Cogger: You have to have strong communications skills. You need to be able to communicate, and communicate effectively, with every part of society, from gang members to CEOs of large corporations to the homeless.
I also think the best law-enforcement officers tend to be extroverted or at least have the willingness and ability to step outside of their comfort zone and deal with issues that ordinary citizens don’t have to deal with.
Finally, you need to be able to control your emotions. Being extremely high-strung could be detrimental. Officers have to take verbal—and maybe even physical—abuse at times and we have to remain calm and deal with that appropriately. And we see a lot of things that the rest of society usually does not. Oftentimes, these things are not pleasant—they may be horrific. You need to have a personality that allows you to cope and deal with this.
CalSouthern: It seems that you have always placed an emphasis on education, whether it’s been pursuing advanced degrees for yourself, training fellow officers or educating students. What draws you to education?
Sergeant Cogger: My agency places a great premium on education. I am very fortunate in that it provides financial reimbursement for officers who want to continue their education. So I was initially motivated to earn my master’s in criminal justice because this opportunity was simply too good to pass up. But one I started the program, I found I enjoyed it more than any other educational experience I have ever had.
In addition to conducting various training programs at my department, I have taught undergraduate courses in criminal justice since 2006. Once I started, I fell in love with it. I really enjoy sharing my experiences and expertise with students, as well as interacting with them and serving as a mentor, whether it’s regarding the specific coursework or broader questions relating to a career in the field.
CalSouthern: Earlier you had mentioned that higher education was becoming increasingly important in law enforcement. Could you elaborate?
Sergeant Cogger: I’ve seen plenty of great police officers who’ve had nothing more than a high school education, so I wouldn’t say a college degree is an absolute qualifier. However, there are extremely important, undeniable benefits of higher education.
For example, a college degree—in virtually any discipline—will hone your writing skills, which are critical to a successful career in law enforcement. College also teaches you how to conduct research. If you want to advance and perhaps take on investigative roles, you will need to be an effective researcher. Finally, a bachelor’s or graduate degree makes you more promotable and gives you a better opportunity to transition into specialty positions that you might find particularly interesting or which might be more lucrative.
CalSouthern: You’ve been at CalSouthern for just over a year now. What are some of the highlights of your work with the students?
Sergeant Cogger: I’ve had students from Japan, Alaska, New York—it’s such a unique opportunity to interact with students from all over the country and all over the world, over a topic of mutual interest. I enjoy hearing their stories and experiences as much as I hope they enjoy hearing mine.
CalSouthern: In your relatively short time here, you’ve already been recognized by learners and administration as an outstanding faculty mentor. In your opinion, what is required on the part of a mentor and learner to optimize the online learning experience?
Sergeant Cogger: Regular communication is the key, in my opinion. I would advise students to communicate—beyond merely submitting assignments—on a weekly basis with their mentor. Without this, I think students become less engaged and run the risk of losing some of their focus, ultimately getting less out of the course than they could. It needs to be an ongoing dialogue. However, it’s also the mentor’s responsibility to do outreach. If I sense that a student is beginning to fall off the program, I’ll reach out to them and try to re-engage them in the material.
But the bottom line is, if I am successful as a mentor, it’s due to the fact that I enjoy teaching, the subject matter and the interaction with students so much.
Patrol is the part of law enforcement that the community sees. It gives you the privilege and responsibility of being the first one on the scene, the first to be able to offer help.
You need to be able to communicate, and communicate effectively, with every part of society, from gang members to CEOs of large corporations to the homeless.
A bachelor’s or graduate degree makes you more promotable and gives you a better opportunity to transition into specialty positions that you might find particularly interesting or which might be more lucrative.