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Sgt. Jim Cota: 24 years with LBPD and counting

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Sgt. Jim Cota’s first job after graduating from the Golden West Police Academy was with the Laguna Beach Police Department (LBPD). When he graduated there weren’t many options due to Orange County’s bankruptcy. “There were only a handful of cities that were hiring. I chose Laguna Beach which turned out to be the right choice for me because I never left,” he says. Sgt. Cota has been with LBPD for 24 years.

And he’s not planning on leaving, at least not yet. Rising through the ranks from a police officer to a narcotics detective to a field training officer to corporal and, now, as a sergeant, Sgt. Cota’s ambitions have not abated. He is planning on being involved in LBPD’s promotional process next year. However, there’s not a lot of rope left to climb. All that stands in front of him is lieutenant, then captain and, finally chief. “I want to promote to lieutenant,” he says. “We have some openings in the next year.”

Sgt Cota close up

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Sgt. Jim Cota is a 24-year veteran of the Laguna Beach Police Department

A heavy load requires his full attention

While he may have his eye on the future, Sgt. Cota’s present requires his full attention. As a sergeant of the investigations division, he oversees six detectives, the department’s administration training officer, the property and evidence officer, the community officer, the school resource officer as well as the social media team. And, if that’s not enough, he’s also the department’s press information officer. He acts as the department’s spokesperson. “This is a real honor for me,” he says earnestly. “I get to highlight and showcase all the wonderful events and the great jobs all the officers do, as well as communicate with local media sources.”

Committed to a graduate degree from USC

Sgt. Cota is investing a lot of energy in the communications part of his job. “I’m currently enrolled in a graduate program at USC – fight on! – in communications. And, yes, I drank the juice,” he says with a laugh. “But really, I’m most proud of being accepted to such a prestigious school.” Cota was interested in USC’s program because of their focus on social media. “They’re teaching new ways to conduct research into the next generation. It’s a very intensive program. A degree of this magnitude goes hand in hand with my PIO (public information officer) duties for the police department.”

Choosing the Nike way of getting things done

With all of this going on, Cota says he practices the Nike “Just do it” philosophy. “My life may look difficult to most people. I have to balance work, school and family life.” Luckily, he says both home and the members of the department are very supportive of his efforts. He says he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be, doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing. However, it was a dark event that set him on this path.

Sgt. Cota is not someone who grew up wanting to be a police officer. After graduating from high school he went into real estate. “I enjoyed it, but something was missing in my life,” he says. The turning point came when he watched the 1992 Los Angeles riots on TV.

The 1992 Los Angeles riots make an impact

 “I remember watching the early stages of the riots and questioning why the LAPD was not helping Reginald Denny. (Reginald Denny was the truck driver who was pulled from his truck and beaten at the corner of Florence and Normandy in south central Los Angeles.) I realized I could really do that and make a difference, as opposed to what I was doing (in real estate).” Cota went on some ride-alongs with a friend who worked for an LA agency, and he was hooked. “I fell in love with the job,” he says.

Sgt Cota talking

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Sgt. Jim Cota conducts an interview in the LBPD conference room

Laguna’s Main Beach protest provides a great learning opportunity

Luckily, Cota has never had to deal with anything close to the events in LA that motivated him to become a police officer. The biggest event he has worked in recent times was the Main Beach protest in 2017. Sgt. Cota credits Laguna Beach Police Chief Farinella with managing the event “perfectly.” “I learned a lot observing her decision making which helps me make swift decisions in the investigations unit.” He saw her decision making up close as the two worked together in the command post that day. “I observed her make timely and critical decisions that made that operation so successful,” he recalls.

A high regard for those he works with

 Sgt. Cota goes on at length about the high regard he has for Chief Farinella. He is also a big believer in community policing, which she demands. The idea is that the police should interact with the community beyond their traditional police work. Cota believes this helps foster community support. 

Community policing is key

“We take time to get out of our cars and talk to the kids, stop at a lemonade stand. You don’t see that in other cities. This is the philosophy that the Chief expects from the officers in this police department. Police officers who work here have to be willing to do more than just write tickets and arrest people.” 

Community policing is something that is taught in depth at the Golden West Police Academy and the LBPD embraced the concept before Chief Farinella came on board. However, she has taken it to another level. “She gets it. She gets this community’s needs. Her personality is exactly what the City needs, and it has responded well to her,” he says.

A true, blue Dodger fan

Sgt. Cota responded well to his new Chief before he even had a chance to  become such a fan of her job performance. When Chief Farinella first started, Sgt. Cota recalls there being the usual anxiety about new leadership coming in. What broke the ice for the two of them is when they discovered they shared a love for the Dodgers. “We’re the only two who are die-hards,” he says smiling.

Sgt Cota Dodgers wall

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Sgt. Cota isn’t shy about where his baseball loyalties lie

Cota is equally effusive about his investigations team. “They are absolutely incredible,” he gushes. “They’re like a second family to me. Each of them works so hard, night and day, for this organization.”

LBPD is a source of great pride for Sgt. Cota

To have such faith in one’s coworkers is extremely beneficial in a job such as Sgt. Cota’s, especially as things have changed quite a bit in his 24 years on the force. “Society has changed,” he muses. More specifically, Laguna has gotten a lot busier as the visiting population has soared. This means more service calls. And while this obviously presents problems, it also means more opportunities for engagement. “The police department does a terrific job of minimizing crime in this town,” he says emphatically.

The pride Sgt. Cota has in the Laguna Beach Police Department has certainly been earned. It’s also an important factor in why he finds the job so rewarding. “I am so grateful my life went in this direction,” he says. “This is the career I was made for.” After 24 years, with no signs of slowing down, it would seem so.