DELMAR — The Bethlehem Town Board has all but decided who will be the town’s next police chief.
Detective Sgt. Gina Cocchiara is expected to be named the town’s first female police chief when the board members vote on her appointment during tonight’s meeting at 6 p.m. Town Supervisor David VanLuven will officially present the appointment to the board who is then expected to pass the appointment through a formal vote.
The town described Cocchiara as expressing an “ambitious vision” for modernizing the Police Department in a climate that demands law enforcement agencies build stronger relationships with the communities they police.
“Our community and our expectations of policing have changed over the years, and I look forward to working with Detective Sergeant Cocchiara as our new Chief,” VanLuven said. “She’s just the right person to lead the department and its outstanding officers into a new era of policing.”
Cocchiara started her career as a deputy sheriff with the Greene County Sheriff’s Department and the Rensselaer County Sheriff’s Department in 1994. She joined Bethlehem’s police force four years later as a patrol officer and was later promoted to sergeant in 2008. She earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration and is a member of the New York Women in Law Enforcement Association, New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Cocchiara was among a field of three candidates vying for the top law enforcement position in town. Included in the mix was Sgt. Jim Rexford and Cmdr. Adam Hornick. Hornick was all that remained of a three-man command team that involved then-Police Chief Louis Corsi and Deputy Chief Thomas Heffernan. Both retired from their positions in July, leaving Hornick as the officer in charge since.
“The Town Board interviewed three exceptional employees for the promotion to Chief of Police in Bethlehem,” Town Board member Joyce Becker said. “With over 20 years of experience in policing, Gina Cocchiara’s vision of future policing in Bethlehem will lead us as we face challenges and issues. Gina brings to Bethlehem solutions to optimize and implement strategic community-based plans for the tomorrows of our community.”
The selection even drew praise from Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, who commended the town for appointing its department’s first woman to the leadership post.
“Gina has served the residents of Bethlehem for over twenty years, and has demonstrated that she has the experience, temperament, and integrity to move the Police Department forward,” Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said. “I look forward to working with Gina and her team as we continue our work protecting and serving the residents of Bethlehem.”
The appointment bookends weeks of interviews and deliberation whose process was scrutinized by residents demanding they be included in the selection process. A bipartisan group gathered at Town Hall last Friday afternoon. On that same day, town board members met to discuss who to select. It was an unusual process initiated by VanLuven, who described the decision as too “important” to fall only on his shoulders. When the town last named a police chief 17 years ago, it was based on the recommendation of the outgoing one.
“The residents of Bethlehem have some of the best, most professional and community-oriented men and women serving in uniform,” Town Board member Jim Foster said. “We expect great things from our officers and we get great things from our officers. I congratulate Gina on her new position as Chief, and know that she will work tirelessly to continue to protect and serve our entire community as she leads the Bethlehem Police Department into the future.”
Social strife over racial inequity and demands for police reform has shaped policy making in recent months. In June, Gov. Andrew Cuomo revised Civil Rights Law to allow access to police disciplinary files. On the same day, he mandated police agencies include community leaders in a concerted effort to redefine expectations and share responsibilities regarding policy making.
“The Town Board was very impressed by all three applicants and we are fortunate to have all three serving our Town,” Town Board Member Dan Coffey said. “Sgt. Cocchiara has the vision and experience to lead the department at this critical juncture as our police department performs its internal review per Governor’s Executive Order 203.”
Town Board members labored over the decision, involving law enforcement experts from neighboring communities to help define expectations for the incoming chief. How those meetings complied with Open Meeting Laws was questioned by Spotlight News. Both interviews and deliberations were conducted by all members of the board, including the supervisor, town attorney and human resources director without public notice. The town responded by publishing a formal announcement of last Friday’s meeting, followed by posting a corresponding agenda on its website.
So, too, were the disciplinary files shared by the town through a FOIL request submitted by this newspaper. Disciplinary action and commendations were requested and shared. Only incidents involving Cocchiara were shared. The town’s interpretation of Civil Rights Law stated that unsubstantiated incidents are exempt from responses. While Cocchiara’s files included approximately 90 pages, including a two-week suspension and a near termination. The board received similar access to files, and one said “that was telling.”
Becker said she spoke with police officers, both in the department and outside, and described how women are often treated while on the force. Those complacent with their current roles are left alone, while ambitious ones can be targeted.
“You know, I have never known perfect employees that don’t have nothing that someone could have written or said in their file,” she said. “So, I think that is telling.” She shared compliments for Hornick and Rexford, but was moved by Cocchiara’s vision of reintroducing police officers to local schools to mend relationships with the community. When prompted, she said the board was not swayed by the prospect of appointing its first woman chief.
“No,” she said. “I would be the first to say. … I think her vision was what I wanted to see in Bethlehem.”
“Her close ties with our residents, schools, town institutions, and community will be an asset to the Bethlehem Police Department,” Town Board member Maureen Cunningham said. “As the first female and openly gay Police Chief in the history of our town, Gina is a role model who I believe has the strength, integrity and skills to guide our town to a more just and equitable future.”
Cocchiara expressed being humbled by the historic decision in a written response to Spotlight News, adding she looks forward to “the greatest challenge of my career.”
“I am extremely grateful for the trust bestowed upon me by our town supervisor and members of the Town Board,” she stated. “I will focus my efforts on the many social justice reforms and listen to the concerns of our diverse community. We will work together to connect with our citizens and ensure they are heard and their concerns are met with dignity and respect. My door is always open and I am looking forward to meeting with the residents of our great community to re-imagine law enforcement together.”