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West St. Paul’s Jerry Cotton became the first black sheriff’s deputy in Dakota County in 1980. He worked in the department for 23 years, earning a promotion to sergeant in 1995. Jerry served as a mentor and teacher, and colleagues called him a trailblazer for efforts to diversify the department. Cotton passed away in 2006 at the age of 58 after battling cancer.
Cotton and his wife, Jan, moved to West St. Paul in 1970. Jan Cotton still lives in West St. Paul.
A Commanding Character
At 6-foot-three and up to 295 pounds, Cotton paired a commanding presence with a booming laugh. He was known to give candy along with a ticket, and if a child was in a car he pulled over, he’d offer a stuffed animal.
“It’s nothing personal, it’s just my job,” he would say, doing everything he could to treat people with respect and brighten their day.
“[Jerry] loved to talk and loved to laugh,” said former Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows said in a 2006 Pioneer Press article. “You could hear his laugh from across the room and you knew Jerry was in the house.”
Preparing the Next Generation
Cotton is perhaps best known for his work as a mentor and teacher, preparing the next generation of law enforcement officers. For 10 years he taught criminal justice and law enforcement classes to high school students.
“He nurtured me all the way through, up to and including me becoming an intern at Dakota County,” said William Anderson, one of Cotton’s proteges, in a 2016 Pioneer Press article. “He supervised me. He taught me. He counseled me. He kept me focused.”
Anderson went on to become the first black police chief of St. Cloud, Minn., in 2012.
“After you started listening to him, you realized very quickly he knew what he was talking about,” Anderson said. “I remember being struck by the fact he was willing to share that stuff with budding law enforcement professionals. And he was always willing to give that advice and that counsel and answer those questions.”
In the mid-1990s, Cotton encouraged Dakota County Sheriff Don Gudmundson to bring more diversity to the department.
“Our decision was that it’s important for law enforcement to reflect the people they police,” Gudmundson said in a 1999 Pioneer Press article. “That’s been a standard talked about for years but not lived up to in any meaningful way.”
While the effort wasn’t without critics, it was effective. At the time of Cotton’s death, about 13% of the Sheriff department’s full-time employees were non-white, about twice as diverse as Dakota County’s population at the time. (At the end of 2019, the department reported being 14.77% non-white.)
Cotton himself pushed for a program that valued equality and went deeper than appearances:
“The only thing worse than no [minority internship] program at all is a failed program. If the only thing they want to do is hire people of color to put them on a shelf like cans of soup and have the labels facing out so people can say, ‘Oh my God, look at all the people we’ve hired,’ then that’s a failed program. If you have no mechanism of training them once they’re here, it’s like having a can of soup and no can opener or no pots to cook it in. Of the officers brought in under the guise of the minority internship program, how many have been trained, prepared and readied to go the next step? If they haven’t, that tells me you don’t really want those people at the top.”Jerry Cotton, 1999 Pioneer Press article
Giving His Life
Cotton’s death from cancer was ultimately the result of helping someone. When a man collapsed at a basketball game, Cotton swung into action. He administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and the man vomited—possibly giving Cotton hepatitis B. After 20 years the condition destroyed his liver, leading to a cancerous tumor. Despite a liver transplant, Cotton’s cancer had already spread.
“I never saw him bitter or get angry about it,” Jan Cotton said in a 2006 Pioneer Press article. “[It] was something he did because he knew he had to do it.”
Jerry Cotton’s legacy will live on through a memorial scholarship through Metro State University. Set up by Jan Cotton and initially funded through an annual golf tournament, the Jerry Cotton Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Endowed Scholarship is now self-sustaining (but can grow with continued gifts).
So far scholarships for law enforcement and criminal justice at Metro State have supported 24 students with a total of $16,000.
You can support the Jerry Cotton’s legacy by making a donation to the scholarship fund through Metro State University.
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