Following the death of George Floyd last year and the subsequent protests across the nation, Cortland Community-Oriented Policing Officer Jesse Abbott, had to have discussions about race to build trust between the department and the community.
“Over the last year and a half, I’ve had some very difficult conversations, really kind of laid my heart out there and my mind out there and so did the people across the table,” Abbott said Friday. “But it was productive. We were able to learn from one another.”
More must change with policing, Abbott said, but those were some of the many community interactions he had over his 20 years with the Cortland Police Department, from which he will be retire July 16 after 21 years.
The position, which Abbott has held since its creation in 2017, is meant to “build new relationships with the community and strengthen existing relationships” along with having a liaison for the police department who people from the public can come to and talk about any issues they may have, Abbott said.
He has done this through Shop with a Cop — where children can buy Christmas presents for themselves and family members — along with Coffee with a Cop, where people sit and chat with him over a bit of dark brew.
A larger community gathering has come through the Stone Soup event, where residents got together to get to know one another and the police.
“It’s certainly going to be a loss to the agency and community,” Cortland Police Chief Paul Sandy said, particularly remembering Abbott’s role in creating the 9/11 memorial at Courthouse Park. “He’s definitely a workhorse and puts more time into events than he gets consideration for.”
Sandy said he hopes he can fill the community- oriented policing officer position, but because of a nationwide shortage of police officers, it may be a while.
When Abbott completed high school and was deciding what to do with his life, he followed his father’s and grandfather’s path and became a police officer. He enrolled at Onondaga Community College to study criminal justice and was hired by the Cortland Police Department after graduating.
“I remember walking up Clayton Avenue with my field training officer, and it was summertime, and there’s a bunch of college students sitting, partying out on a wall and they look at me like, ‘Get out of here, how old are you?’ and I was their age.” Abbott said.
Some cases have stood out to Abbott — including an officer involved shooting in 2007 and locating a person wanted on a warrant in a rape case who was eventually found in Indiana.
The 2007 case involved a car chase across much of the county during which, the perpetrator, Erik W. Vandenburg, rammed into city police vehicles and kept driving. Abbott fired four shots into the rear of Vandenburg’s truck, but did not hit him, which Abbott said during Vandenburg’s trial made him the first officer to fire his weapon at a suspect in 30 years.
But just working, day in and day out, and the relationships he’s built with other police will be what Abbott takes with him.
Last summer, Abbott visited city neighborhoods, set up a table and listened to what people had to say. These conversations, especially speaking with people of color, helped him learn more about himself.
“I don’t go about living my day to day wondering what’s going to happen to me — other than being a police officer — but when I take the uniform off, yeah, I’m a white male walking around in the community and I really don’t have many threats to me or my family,” he said. “And that’s what really opened my eyes to the stories and comments of mainly the people of color population and just seeing how difficult their livelihood, their lifestyle can actually be.”
Similar conversations were equally informative for Abbott with the city’s LGBT community.
As for what’s next, Abbott said he’s becoming a sales representative for a wine and spirits company in Syracuse.
Abbott said over his career, his goal was to have a positive influence on at least one person every day.
“I just want to be that positive impact on as many people as I can and I think we should all live by that, really,” he said.