By G. Michael Dobbs
Nick Cocchi, the deputy chief of Security at the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, has announced he will run to succeed Sheriff Michael Ashe.
Reminder Publications submitted photo
Some people may say that Nick Cocchi may be beginning his campaign to succeed Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe too early – Ashe’s term doesn’t end until 2016 – but the 21-year veteran of the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department told Reminder Publications he wants the time to meet the voters of the county.
“This is not a position of politics. This a position of experience,” he said.
Cocchi officially announced his candidacy at a campaign event on June 11. He is the only candidate in a race that has so far been defined by rumors involving the alleged aspirations of several elected officials.
He serves today as the deputy chief of Security at the jail, which means he manages the day-to-day operations of many of its departments, and as the commander and administrator of the Tactical Response Team.
Cocchi, a Ludlow resident, started his career when he took a part-time summer job at the house of corrections between his junior and senior years while attending Western New England University.
“I was fascinated and enjoyed it,” Cocchi recalled. He asked Ashe if he could be part of the next academy program for correctional officers and the sheriff promised he could be as long as he finished his senior year at the university.
Cocchi worked his way up through the organization from being a correctional officer and said he has found the skills he has acquired as a hockey coach – he coached the Minnechaug High school team for 11 years – have worked well in correctional work.
He explained a good coach must prepare and pay attention to details, which are important to his job. Cocchi sees correctional officers as mentors who provide the tools and resources for inmates to make positive change in their lives.
“It’s very rewarding when you can break through to the offending population letting them known there are people who care,” Cocchi said.
Accountability is a recurring message through a discussion with Cocchi who believes inmates can make progress when they decide to acknowledge their mistakes in order to move past them.
Under Ashe, the recidivism rates have declined and Cocchi credits that to several factors. He said the jail is a “clean, lawful facility” that requires sobriety from its inmates. He noted that between 85 and 87 percent of the inmates come into the jail with substance abuse problems. Of that group about 67 percent have mental and emotional issues along with an addiction.
The inmates are evaluated and placed into programs to address their situations, which Cocchi explained, “Good programming provides good security.”
He explained that before mandatory programming gang members were intimidating the inmates who wanted to seek help. Today, if an inmate doesn’t want to participate he is out in an “accountability pod,” which has only “the essentials of incarceration.”
Cocchi acknowledged the jail has suffered budget cuts over the years he has been there, which he said have totaled between $6 million to $7 million. He explained the strategy has been to use the funding the best way they can. He cited as an example of placing first time non-violent offenders into programs outside of the confines of the jail, which carry a lower cost.
He added that first time opiate users shouldn’t be going into jail but should be going into treatment programs that include supervision for their sobriety.
He said one strength of the Sheriff’s Department is that it can work with every law enforcement organization in the county and, if elected, he would “continue to work in the community.” Members of the department are involved in neighborhood watch groups, among other efforts.
The results of the kind of work undertaken at the jail are seen in its statistics and in how former inmates react when they see Cocchi. He said they come up to him and talk about how they are doing. If he is with his family, he’ll introduce them.
“Respect comes first,” he said.
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