Incoming Champaign police chief deeply rooted in the community
In 1986, a 16-year-old Centennial High School student sells shoes at Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Champaign. He is hired with some reluctance from store managers — there aren't too many high school kids working there, but they give him a shot.
An older woman in the shoe department is teaching him everything he needs to know. She's retiring, and he's a quick learner. They've known each other even before the teenager got this job; he grew up with her kids in Champaign.
Some of his Centennial classmates are working fast food, but the 16-year-old Anthony Cobb isn't interested. He wants to wear a shirt and tie to work.
If you tell the teenage version of him that, at 42, he would be the head of the police department in the town where he spent nearly his entire life, he probably wouldn't believe you.
"Never thought I'd have been a cop or even a police chief," Cobb said.
He has lived all across the northern part of Champaign — out west near Interstate 57, briefly in the Garden Hills neighborhood and later on Grove Street, just across from Booker T. Washington Elementary School.
Before going away to West Point, he studied at Champaign schools — BTW, Jefferson Middle School and Centennial High. He has been attending the Church of the Living God on Fourth Street for more than 10 years. Before that, he worshiped at Canaan Baptist Church in Urbana.
Cobb now says he has seen the community transition over his lifetime, and being chief of police in the city where he grew up puts him in a unique position.
"I have longstanding ties and roots to this community," Cobb said.
That's important, said Urbana Police Chief Patrick Connolly.
"The police can't solve the problems of the community by themselves," Connolly said. "They've got to have the support of the community."
And Mayor Don Gerard said Cobb's presence in the community gives him a head start.
"He's been here, so he knows not only the lay of the land but those who run it and take care of it," Gerard said.
But growing up here hasn't always been an advantage, Cobb said. He has seen both the good and the bad of the community, and he grew up with some of the people he took to jail. Connolly agrees that some people may have tried to take advantage of him.
"Guys I grew up with and I was taking to jail because they were doing things against the law, they took issue with it," Cobb said. "Because when they ran across an issue, they wanted me to hook them up."
They would say, "'Hey, Cobb, hook a brother up, help me out,'" Cobb said. "I can't do it. If I catch you breaking the law, I've got to do my job."
"It's funny now, because I see the same guys today, and here we are a little bit older, a little bit wiser, a little more mature," Cobb said. "I've had many people over the years apologize to me 10, 15 years later."
Connolly, who has supervised Cobb for two decades at the Urbana department, credited the strength of his ethics. He spent 20 years as a police officer in Urbana, where he's preparing to leave the assistant chief's office to move into his Champaign office on March 12. His first order of business, he says, will be allowing Champaign officers to see and assess him.
Gerard said working together with the department will be important very early.
"I really hope that coming out of the gate, he very quickly wins and earns the respect of every officer on the force from top to bottom and that they work as a cohesive unit," Gerard said.
His entire career has been particularly unique, Cobb said, given that he is a black police officer.
"Being an African-American officer and trying to be successful, it's challenging," Cobb said. "I think a lot of the guys who came up through the ranks with me would attest that I probably caught more heat than most white officers did when it came from the black community.
"I got lit up and lit up like it was unbelievable. I had people cuss me out just because I showed up there, because I'm a black guy doing a white man's job."
Cobb admits that, because of the culture where he grew up, even he had a misconception about what police officers do when he was a teenager.
"I had a misconception about how they treated people," Cobb said. "I always thought police officers were out to take black people to jail. Out to beat them down. Chase them, beat them down, take them to jail."
He learned at West Point that it was easier to change a system from within, he said, and he went into the Urbana department with that mind-set. He was surprised at what he found.
"It was an eye-opening experience for me and an eye-opening experience, I think, for the officers," Cobb said. "I have not yet in my career ever in Champaign County met a racist officer. I have not met someone out to get someone just by the color of their skin."
There may have been a few officers along the way who are ignorant of black culture, he said, but never racist.
"I always found them to be truly pure-hearted," he said.
He said he has heard from some in Champaign that they are excited to have a chief who represents the black community. But he wants to reiterate that he is here for the entire city.
"Color doesn't make a difference, sex doesn't make a difference," Cobb said. "I'm going to look at the issue and what's in the best interest of the community as a whole."
Champaign needs to deal with problems citywide, Cobb said. He suggested that residents all over town have the same fundamental needs when it comes to police issues.
"If I improve a life in the northeast part of town, I'll improve a life in the southwest part of town," he said.