Ex-sheriff's deputy, jail commander says he has experience, skills to deal with future challenges.
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Don't be surprised to see Rollin E. Cook in a correction's officer uniform on Fridays.
Suit and tie will be standard dress the rest of the week, but the new director of the Utah Department of Corrections has decided to don his uniform that day to demonstrate his connection to rank-and-file employees.
"It's part of what I've done and represents a part of our organization," said Cook, who is a certified correctional officer, on a recent Friday. "This is a symbol that I'm with the ground-level staff as well."
Since being named director Cook has moved swiftly to signal a change in leadership style for the department, which faces the prospect of monumental change as the Utah Legislature considers relocating the state's main prison facility amid closer scrutiny of its operations.
Cook, a former Salt Lake County Sheriff's deputy and jail commander, emerged as the top candidate from a pool of more than 60 applicants for the post. Among his strengths: As a consultant with the National Institution of Corrections, Cook taught a best-practices course on how to open new institutions and assisted with the opening of 10 new correctional facilities in other states. Closer to home, Cook played a key role with the opening of the Salt Lake County Metro Jail and the reopening of the Oxbow facility.
"My role is not to make the decision about whether to move but to be an advisor to [the prison relocation board], the governor and legislators about information they need to make that decision," Cook said. "I can be a subject matter expert to them, and if they decide they are going to move, I have experience" with that.
"If the prison is not moved, I believe I have the experience to work with local agencies to make the very best product we can," Cook said.
The coach •Cook was born in Midvale and given a first name that comes with a backstory.
Rollin "Hook" Reser, his mother's cousin, was a talented baseball player whose goal was to play professionally. According to Cook, Reser was already being scouted by the Los Angeles Dodgers when he was diagnosed at age 15 with an aggressive cancer. Doctors had to amputate both of Reser's legs. A photo in the Sept. 22, 1960, Torrance Press shows former Dodger outfielder Carl Furillo visiting Reser in the hospital after the first surgery. Cook says the organization later allowed Reser to sit with the team in the dugout during a game. Reser died in 1962 at age 17.
Cook said he was the first boy to come along in the family after that devastating loss and as he tells the story, Cook breaks down for a moment and you learn something about him: family and community matter deeply.
Cook, 46, credits his father, who was a plumber, with teaching him the importance of hard work and taking care of employees. Good coaches in particular, Roger Hatfield, who coached Cook in baseball and basketball taught him how to work well with others and the important lesson that when you fall short, you get back up and try again.
One time, Cook was sitting on the bench crying because he had just struck out. It didn't help that the team's coach was yelling at him and needed him to pull himself together to play first base. Hatfield, who had coached Cook in basketball, had a son on the team and was watching the game from the bleachers. He came down, put his arm around Cook and calmed him down. Cook said Hatfield told him a day would come when he would realize baseball should be nothing but a source of fun in life: "You're going to be just fine. Now get out there and play."
Cook said the moment provided a lasting example of the difference a person who cares, and shows it the right way, can make.
Cook graduated from Hillcrest High School and attended the University of Utah for a few years before taking a job with the Salt Lake County Sheriff's department to support his family. Cook later completed a bachelor's degree from Columbia College and a master's degree from the University of Phoenix.
"When I teach classes, I say I didn't grow up pulling a red wagon and saying I was going to be a correctional officer," Cook said. It was the late 1980s, his wife was expecting their first child and he was "looking for a solid job" that was honorable and came with good benefits. Law enforcement fit that short list.
He paid his own way through the peace officer training program and quickly felt he could make a career for himself in law enforcement.
"I could see a lot of future there in being able to help people," said Cook.
Cook spent 23 years with the sheriff's department, retiring as a chief deputy in 2012. Among those in the audience at the retirement party: Coach Hatfield.
"I ended up having the opportunity to promote and to work on great projects," he said of those two decades. "Had someone not believed in me, I wouldn't have had this opportunity to be in this [new] position. ... I understand the magnitude of it and will never take it for granted and continue to work hard for everybody."
He is a husband and a father to four children, the oldest of whom has autism and the reason for Cook's involvement with the Autism Speaks chapter in Utah. For the past two decades, Cook has been a devoted volunteer sports coach basketball, baseball and soccer.
"I think it's important to be involved in the community in positive ways," he said.
With his new job and its time demands, though, Cook has given up the teaching and consulting jobs and says he'll settle now for being an assistant coach.
Servant leadership •Cook spent his first weeks on the job traveling around the state to meet with corrections and Adult Probation and Parole employees, listen to their concerns and share his leadership philosophy.
What he heard: Employees want to be respected, be treated equally, have their concerns heard and have an opportunity to assist in problem solving.
What they heard: Cook believes in "servant leadership" leading with humility, listening and involving staff in decision-making and problem-solving processes.
Based on those meetings, Cook has designated an employee liaison to help track and respond to staff concerns and to organize monthly meetings with employee organizations.
"That will have a huge impact on the morale and their willingness to be part of the team and part of the solutions," Cook said.
Cook also has initiated a new openness at corrections, approving use of social media Twitter and Facebook to communicate with the public.
Cook said he doesn't consider himself to be the "only one with answers." Nor does he plan to surround himself with a "whole bunch of people just like me."
"I need people who have a variety of points of view who are not just telling [me] yes all the time," he said, but instead offer different perspectives and solutions to challenges.
He has made one administrative decision, promoting London Stromberg from chief of the law enforcement bureau to deputy director of operations. Mike Haddon remains deputy director of administrative services.
He has re-appointed or appointed people to 21 other positions, naming Dave Worthington to fill the vacant internal audit post, Jim Hudspeth to fill Stromberg's position as law enforcement bureau chief, and Scott Crowther as training director luring Crowther from the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office corrections bureau to take over for Geri Miller-Fox, now director at Adult Probation and Parole.
"I was pleasantly surprised with the high-qualify staff and leadership here, which made it an easy decision to [appoint] deputy directors from within," he said.
That inclusiveness impressed Karen McCreary, director of the ACLU of Utah and Audry Wood, director of the Utah Public Employees Association, both of whom met with Cook.
"He seems like a person who is willing to be open and listen and learn," McCreary said. Cook pledged to make himself and his staff available to talk through concerns, she added, and also to "relay to us what he believes ar ethe reasons for why things are done so there is an opportunity to engage" in meaningful discussion.
"If that continues, that is bound to be really helpful," McCreary said.
Wood said that Cook has already shown a willingness to collaborate on issues affecting public employees.
"UPEA is optimistic that we can continue to work with Rollin during the upcoming months when more controversial issues may emerge," Wood said.
Good partner •Cook knows steering a new direction for a department as large as corrections, which has more than 2,200 employees to manage 6,900 inmates and 16,400 offenders awaiting sentencing or being supervised in the community, is a challenge.
"We are early on," he said. "There are plenty of things we have to work at."
When he announced Cook's appointment, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said he was committed to a "top-to-bottom review" of corrections focused on reducing recidivism, improving rehabilitation and ensuring public safety issues also raised by lawmakers who support moving the prison from its 690-acre site in Draper.
Utah's recidivism rate is 54 percent, according to a 2011 study by the Pew Center on the States. The study noted Utah had one of the most dramatic improvements of any state between 1999 and 2007, but it remains among six states with rates above 50 percent. The national average of 43 percent.
Most parolees commit technical violations, rather than new crimes, that result in their being returned to prison. On average, those recommitments occur within 9 1/2 months, according to a 2012 report by the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.
While some buildings at the Utah State Prison are fairly new, the overall facility has a lock 'em up design that is not conducive to new ideas about how to best reform and treat offenders specifically, those based on a therapeutic community model that integrates rehabilitation with prisoners' daily lives, Cook said.
That approach isn't possible in the tier-style cells where a majority of inmates at the Utah State Prison are housed, he said. It also is a difficulty model to implement in overcrowded situations, which is increasingly the case in the prison's female unit. New facilities also typically incorporate video visitation technology and on-site medical treatment, which cut travel and transportation costs for offenders and their families' alike, he said.
But reducing recidivism is not something corrections can do alone whether or not it moves, Cook said. It requires ensuring a complete system is in place, from the courts to the prison to the community.
"Solving recidivism involves many things, from community programs to programs that prepare inmates for transition to the community," Cook said. "It's not just about the prison and it's not just about me. It's about me being a good partner" with mental health, substance abuse and other community-based programs.
First meeting of Prison Relocation board
The newly reformed Prison Relocation and Development Board will hold its first meeting Wednesday at the Utah State Capitol board room. The meeting begins at 2 p.m.
Board members are: Lane Summerhays; S. Camille Anthony; Dave Luna; Judge Judith Atherton; Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams; Leland Pollock; Sen. Steve Urquhart; Sen. Jerry Stevenson; Rep. Eric Hutchings; Rep. Brad Wilson; and Draper Mayor Darrell Smith.