In an improvised speech following her swearing-in ceremony, Police Chief Gina Cocchiara shared how this day was a dream she’s had since she was 7 years old.
Cocchiara has called Bethlehem home for more than 20 years. It reminds her of her hometown of Suffern, in Rockland County. That’s where her mom and dad raised eight kids. As the youngest, she said, she got all of the attention. She later moved to Albany to live her life. Bethlehem’s first female chief is also the town’s first openly gay one. She moved north to get away from the scrutiny.
Once she was finally appointed police chief, friends from school reached out. They remembered how she shared her dreams while in school. That dream never waived.
Cocchiara’s childhood didn’t offer many role models to base a dream of becoming chief. In 2008, the New York Times published a statistic that stated only 1 percent of chiefs were women: nine were in New York, four in New Jersey and another four in Connecticut. To help in the war effort, her grandmother had taken a dispatch job with the New York City Fire Department in 1943. Cocchiara said it was tough for her, especially as she pushed for advancements. She’d be turned down, and the expectations of the job would be changed, she said. Cocchiara would later learn the parallels between her career and that of her grandmother’s.
“I can assure you, each and every one of you, that I will not let you down,” said Cocchiara, in front of a socially-distanced crowd of approximately 75 people, including members of the Albany Police, Albany County Sheriff’s, friends and family, who gathered outside a pavilion at Elm Avenue Park on Monday, Aug. 31. “This is going to be a different department, with a different culture and a different sense of camaraderie.”
She placed an emphasis on the words “team” and “community” throughout her five-minute speech. Disregard the historic achievement her appointment represented. Less than a week before, the town board voted her in as Bethlehem’s first woman police chief. In 15 of more than 20 years on the service, she was the only woman in the department. The significance of her climb up the leadership ladder was still not lost on those around her.
“She’s an exceptional police officer,” said Bethlehem Town Supervisor David VanLuven. “She has a true gift for communicating and listening and connecting with residents. I think she is the leader that we need to guide the department into a new era of policing.”
Cocchiara was appointed command of the police force following a laborious selection process that included weeks of interviews with candidates and other law enforcement experts. She succeeded Louis Corsi, who served as chief for 17 years before his retirement in July.
The town board selected Cocchiara out of a field of candidates that included Sgt. Jim Rexford and Cmdr. Adam Hornick. The move had her leapfrog Hornick who was all who remained from a three-man command team that included Corsi and former Deputy Chief Thomas Heffernan, who also retired from his position in July.
“The biggest challenge was that it was an incredibly difficult decision to make because all three candidates are outstanding law enforcement professionals,” VanLuven said. “
The town’s decision did not go without scrutiny. Her involvement on the town Democratic Committee was public, as too were thousands of dollars of campaign contributions, much of which went to members of the current board tasked with vetting the three candidates. But, the contributions were made long before Corsi retired. When she decided to interview for the job, she quit her position with the Democrats.
There was, also, her disciplinary record.
Spotlight News requested the disciplinary action and commendations for each of the three candidates. 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, no pages were shared for Rexford and Hornick. The board received similar access to those files, and one said “that was telling.”
Town board member Joyce 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.”
VanLuven said the town board tried to everything within “the context of information that may or not have been included.”
“We felt that, as we looked at the skill set, the integrity, the work ethic and the deep commitment to our town — in addition to her incredible ability to connect with people and, we feel, build strong bridges with the community, build trust within the community, and her ability to lead our department — that she was the right person for us at this time,” said the supervisor.
Cocchiara’s involvement with local schools was often cited by members of the board who shared their supervisor’s sentiment. Becker praised her for her plans to reintroduce police officers to local classrooms, to build positive relationships with young residents. In Cocchiara’s file are several commendations from are principles who complimented her interaction with children. Another letter from a local father shared a different perspective.
In an apparent split family situation, the father described how Cocchiara helped resolve an argument he was having with the mother of his children. The mother had allegedly refused to follow a family court order. The mother later agreed to drop the children off to the father at the police station in Delmar.
“I should also mention that I am an African American man,” the father wrote, “and this situation happened at a time when our nation’s attention towards interactions with police has grown considerably.” The grateful parent said Cocchiara made his children feel “extremely safe and comfortable” during the experience. “In fact, we were recently driving by the police station and the kids were begging me to stop in so that they could see if she was there.”
On a sunny Monday morning, Cocchiara could hardly contain her excitement in front of a crowd waiting to see the start of a new chapter in what has been a historic career in the local police agency. She shared a few items from a long list of ideas she plans to tackle — town hall meetings in local hamlets, bicycle patrols and more community involvement. All of which, she said, will require that “team” effort. That “community” support.
“When I started policing, it wasn’t about, ‘Oh, I want to arrest people,’” Cocchiara said. “It was always about, how can I go out and help people? It’s always been my goal; helping people, and sometimes I think that narrative gets lost.”