John Cobb, a hard-charging law enforcement officer since his days as an U.S. Army airborne military police officer 35 years ago, now leads the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources’ Law Enforcement Division.
Cobb, who has been with DWR since 1995, was promoted to colonel and appointed to the post Nov. 10 following a lengthy search and selection process.
A bit of a rarity, Cobb is a law enforcement officer with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife management, one he earned at Virginia Tech. He also has a host of professional training certifications from his extensive years in military and conservation law enforcement. His work has garnered accolades at state and national levels, including “Wildlife Officer of the Year” awards.
Cobb was most recently a captain, in charge of the division’s Office of Professional Standards. There, he developed a Citizen Feedback System along with an Employee Suggestion Program.
In a bit of a nod to a military way of doing business, he refined how officers applied risk management principles, creating an “after-action review” process for assessing operations and results. He also began work to increase diversity in the division’s workforce, to build and implement a Leadership Development Continuum, and to get the division on track to restore its accredited law enforcement organization status, a professional distinction first gained in 1991 but since lapsed.
“One of the biggest things we did in the last three years is to get that citizen feedback system going. We want to know where we’ve done a good job and where we need to improve,” Cobb said, “and where we can do better. Let us know — by phone call, our automated system or even an anonymous letter.”
When it comes to responding to citizen calls, Cobb said, “Our most important cases are the ones reported by the public; it is critical that we fully investigate these calls and provide them with quality public service.”
Cobb has been a road warrior for the past month, traveling to DWR’s regions and meeting with his officers and other staff members his division supports. Meeting with regional sergeants, the officers he calls “the most important people when it comes to frontline work and running teams,” has been a priority. When it comes to these personal communications, he says he is more in the “receive mode” versus the “transmit mode,” soliciting ideas for the near-term roadmap forward he is developing.
Recruiting and retention has always been a challenge for the agency. Virginia, like many states, has gone to a broader model of conservation policing, transcending the traditional “game warden” model. While the emphasis is on wildlife, fisheries and conservation, the differences between DWR’s officers and agencies such as county sheriff offices, local police departments or even the state police are not as profound as decades ago.
Local law enforcement agencies are good at poaching conservation police officers, often offering better benefits and hours. Cobb say pay scales, though, are not significantly different. Retaining officers in which DWR invested recruiting and training time in is one of Cobb’s top priorities.
“We want to be the employer of choice,” he said.
Cobb said vacant sergeant positions will be filled soon after interviews are finished next month. An improved career ladder is another goal and Cobb said DWR is looking at adding an additional level of supervision to the field, strengthening operations at local levels. If adopted, that change could begin as soon as July 2021. He said he tasked sergeants to form a working group with a February deadline for recommendations.
Cobb said recent years have seen DWR lose “a great deal of our institutional wildlife enforcement knowledge.” Training new field officers is essential. Cobb said selection of 24 new recruits for both the Modified (a shortened course for candidates already certified in a law enforcement position) and Basic Academies will begin in January with the actual academies beginning in July.
Food and exercise
The social media hair of many hunting affiliated groups on social media was ablaze last week when Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced new executive restrictions designed to help curtail spread of the COVID-19 virus. One edict was a midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew except for people engaged in certain pursuits. Some wondered if it would prevent them from going to hunting locations.
I asked DWR Director Ryan Brown for a ruling. He said hunting and fishing are related to both obtaining exercise and/or food, and hunters and anglers aren’t subject to curfew.
Recast and recycle
The nonprofit BoatUS Foundation has worked with Berkley, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other organizations for years to promote the importance of recycling fishing line.
Teaming again with Berkley, BoatUS is looking for a “crowdsourced” solution. They launched a “Recast and Recycle Contest” this summer aimed at getting new ideas, incentivizing suggestions for how more fishing line and soft-plastic baits can be recycled. Total prize money is $30,000.
To enter, submit a four-minute video with a good idea by May 14, 2021. Entry details are at boatus.org/contest.