Paxton's new police chief doesn't see position as stepping stone

PAXTON — When Coy Cornett began working as a full-time patrolman for the Paxton Police Department in February 1999, he thought his stay in the Ford County seat would only be temporary.

He never dreamed that 19 years later, he would be leading that same police department as its new chief of police.

Rather, Cornett thought he would eventually wind up back in Vermilion County — the place he grew up.

“I always thought I’d be going back home, because that’s where all my family is,” said Cornett, now 42. “My family are all police officers down there, so I just assumed I’d go back home ultimately.”

Then his kids started school in the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school system — which he considers “one of the best school systems ever.”

He and his wife, Jacqui, had a decision to make. Staying put was the result — and Cornett has no regrets.

“I’m happy with it,” Cornett said. “I think it’s a good department. We have very good guys — they show up to work all the time, which means a lot to me. There’s a lot of places out there where people are calling in all the time, but that’s doesn’t happen here.”

Cornett and his wife, both natives of Tilton, have now been married for almost 21 years. The two Danville High School graduates — Coy being a 1994 grad and Jacqui being a 1996 grad — also work together almost every day, as she is employed as a sergeant for the Ford County Sheriff’s Office and oversees the county’s dispatch center.

“She’s been there about 17 years,” Cornett said. “She started there a couple years after I was hired here (in Paxton).”

A unique situation
It was never the plan for Cornett and his wife to be working in the same profession.

“It just kind of worked out that way,” Cornett said, noting that his wife had earned a degree in computer programming from Danville Area Community College prior to entering the law enforcement field.

Working alongside his wife can be stressful, but more so for her than for Cornett. In 2002, she was working the radio when Cornett was dispatched to an incident on Illinois 9 west of Paxton, where he would end up being involved in the shooting of a man who was brandishing a gun.

“She was the one who was actually working the radio that day during that time,” Cornett said. “So it’s definitely a stressful situation for her — more so than me, because I’m in the mix of it at the time so I’m focused on what I’m doing.”

Focusing on his job gets him through such dangerous situations, Cornett said.

“When the situation happens, you just stay focused on what you’re doing specifically and don’t think about anything else,” Cornett said. “You just stay focused on the task at hand and you get through that task at hand and then you go on after that.”

Putting himself in harm’s way is not easy, but Cornett does not let it bother him.

“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” Cornett said. “I mean, I’ve been doing it for 21 years, and everybody in my family — most people in my family — are police officers, so I’ve been around policing literally my whole life.”

Here to stay
Cornett became a part-time police officer about three months after he turned 21. He spent the early part of his career working part-time for three Vermilion County police departments — in Belgium, Tilton and Siddell.

He then started working full-time in Paxton, starting as a patrolman before being promoted to night captain — the department’s second-in-command — in May 2006.
He held that position until Aug. 29, 2017, when he was named acting police chief upon the sudden firing of Chief Bob Bane.

He was later officially appointed police chief, effective Jan. 1, 2018.

Cornett said he now expects to end his career in Paxton — although that point in his life is still a way’s off.

“I have a little bit over 12 years until I can pull a pension, so at that time I’ll take it and I’ll retire,” Cornett said.

Changes in works
Since taking over as chief last fall, Cornett has been making a number of changes to the police department, including buying body cameras for his officers, eliminating an unnecessary storage fee for impounded vehicles and creating a more visible police presence in the community.

“We are being more focused about going to the schools. I have officers in the schools just at random,” he said. “It’s nothing for us to go do a walkthrough at the school, or just hang out at the school for a while and talk to the kids, talk to the staff, just be present, just make yourself obvious and known. And we’re going uptown, hanging out at the businesses (on Market Street), talking to people, just being more approachable, being more a part of the community. And we’re at sporting events — all the PBL games. We’re going to the schools during basketball games, wrestling meets, football games. Being out there for people to see is a big thing.

“I think that we need to be approachable. It’s our jobs to be approachable. People need to come and know who we are and be able to come talk to us directly and not feel like they’re going to be ridiculed or anything like that. I mean, that’s what we’re there for. If you have a problem, come talk to us and we’ll see if we can figure it out.”

Cornett is also trying to improve the department by getting his officers trained and up-to-date on trends in crime-fighting.

“An educated officer is a good officer,” Cornett said. “The more educated you can get, the better officer you’re going to have. So we’re working on that. We just had an officer go to a three-day class specifically about computer evidence — obtaining evidence from computers and downloads and stuff like that. That’s a really good class.

“The FBI just did a search warrant here in Paxton a couple days ago (last week), and our officer actually stayed with them, watched how they collected evidence from the computers — just as a hands-on thing just to see how it was done.

“Any kind of education you can get is good education.”

‘Different every day’
Cornett said he enjoys his job thoroughly.

“It’s different every day. It’s not the same old thing,” Cornett said. “Before I became a police officer full-time or even part-time, I was working down at Illinois Concrete down in Champaign — ya know, lifting blocks every day. A factory job like that is not my cup of tea. I like something different every day. Granted a lot of stuff (each day) is similar, but not every day is exactly the same — you don’t know what’s going to happen when you come to work that day.”

Cornett said his two children — Chase, a 2017 graduate of PBL High School who is now stationed in Fort Benning, Ga., with the Illinois Army National Guard; and Alesha, a sophomore at PBL High School — have expressed interest in following in their parents’ footsteps in the law enforcement profession. Whether that happens, however, remains to be seen.

“Both have talked about it plenty of times,” Cornett said. “But I’d actually prefer them not to be police officers. There’s a lot of things you can be in life.”

Meet Coy Cornett
Age: 42
Education: Graduated from Danville High School in 1994 and attended Danville Area Community College
Family: Married for almost 21 years to Jacqui Cornett, a sergeant for the Ford County Sheriff’s Office. They have two children: Chase and Alesha.
Hobbies: Avid hunter and fisherman. “I’ve been hunting all over the place,” he says. “I’ve hunted in Canada, Tennessee, of course Illinois, Indiana, Maine. I’ve been bear hunting in Maine. I’ve killed several wild boars. I have tons of mounts on my walls — turkey mounts, pig mounts, deer mounts.”
Bears or Packers? “Bears. (Quarterback Mitchell) Trubisky’s looking good. I think that’s a change for the good. I think that’s actually going to help out quite a bit.”
Cubs or Cardinals? “Cardinals.”

Location (3):Local, Paxton, Ford County

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