During his earlier years as the chief of the Rutgers University police force, Kenneth B. Cop faced a legitimacy problem. It had to do with his last name, which left some wondering if he was a fictional character created by the department.
“When people met me, they would say ‘Wow! You’re real!’” Cop says.
Ever since his days as an undergraduate at Livingston College, Cop knew he wanted to be a police officer. After his graduation in 1995, he overcame some hurdles to make his dream happen and went to work for Rutgers public safety and law enforcement, the only employer he has ever known.
“I just wanted to help others and keep people safe,” says Cop, who graduated in 1995 with a bachelor of science in Administration of Justice. “The sentiment was instinctual for me, something that I had always cared about. My decision to remain at Rutgers after I graduated is because I always viewed the university as home. So, keeping my home safe was a natural career progression.”
As graduation neared, Cop started looking for work in law enforcement but didn’t get many responses. He finally got a break when he was invited during senior week to ride along with a university patrolman, an experience that Cop relished. With competition for patrolman positions steep, he took a job in the security division of the police force after graduating. Two years later, Cop, a freshly minted graduate of the Ocean County Police Academy, became a patrolman at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, a job he held for 15 years working the overnight shift.
Today, Cop is the executive director of Public Safety and chief of University Police. He ascended from patrolman to captain to executive director of police services to his current job, which he began in 2014. He oversees 500 employees universitywide who are part of the department of public safety, which comprises the university police, emergency services, emergency management, and identity and access management. The Rutgers police force on each university campus coordinates its efforts with the municipal police force in New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden. As the warm weather beckons and campus events multiply, Cop knows his team is entering its busiest time of the school year when calls are on the rise.
Fresh out of the academy, Cop vividly remembers answering his first call, which took place during the holiday season in 1997. His mind brimming with the coming challenges of his new job, Cop was asked, of all things, to go door to door with another patrolman and hand out toys in the New Brunswick homes of less-fortunate families. It was an experience that left an indelible impression on him about public safety.
“I saw and understood the importance and effectiveness of engaging the community,” says Cop, the son of an accountant who grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. “Rutgers chose to engage the community, but the truth is we couldn’t be successful without the help of the community. Today, we go above and beyond in our efforts to work with it. Some of our community-engagement programs, such as The Good Neighbor program, have been recognized by the state.”
Cop defines community as not only Rutgers students, faculty, and staff living and working on campus, but also the university population residing in adjacent neighborhoods, which include city residents with no official relationship to the university. Everyone is family, as far as Cop is concerned. A stickler for constant self-evaluation of his department, he regularly invites the public to submit online evaluations of the Rutgers University police. The consensus? “The number one thing that people ask for is more of us and in more locations,” says Cop, who was named a Livingston College Distinguished Alumnus in 2015.
At this point, the department’s continuous procedural improvements allow the public safety department to safeguard and facilitate big events like Rutgers Day and university commencements. The task, Cop says, is made infinitely easier with advances in technology, from neighborhood cameras to patrol cars loaded with the latest gear. The positive results have garnered three prestigious law enforcement accreditations for the Rutgers police department, one of the few police forces in the state to do so.
Abiding by the Livingston College slogan that he took to heart as an undergraduate – Strength Through Diversity – Cop says success comes in having a broad range of backgrounds among his staff. But all law enforcement officials should have one thing in common: Cop wants a candidate with strong people skills who appreciate helping others, not someone eager to rack up arrests and citations. “The rest,” he says, “we can teach: the law, car stops, and the like.”
To that end, Cop takes particular pleasure in mentoring others and providing career guidance, the sort of counseling initially unavailable to him. It’s in keeping with his nurturing leadership style that encourages comments and observations from his staff so that Cop can arrive at the right decision in the name of public safety.
When law enforcement officers near the completion of the training program, one of their last stops is an interview with Cop, who lays it on the line. “There is a list I go through,” he says, “and it comes down to this: providing quality work; serving and connecting with the community; and keeping the environment safe so that people can live and learn.”