As a young University of Minnesota graduate more than three decades ago, Hennepin County Community Corrections Director Chester “Chet” Cooper started his career working with kids adrift at St. Joseph’s Home for Children.
“I wanted to have an opportunity to make a difference in those people’s lives,” he said.
But after a couple of years there and wanting to start a family with his wife, he doubled his salary when he got a job as a detention deputy in Hennepin County. From there he began a 23-year ascent of the Sheriff’s Office. “I had never thought of a career in law enforcement, but I really enjoyed the work,” he said.
Cooper went back to college to add criminal justice credits to his degree. He became a sworn deputy, then a sergeant, lieutenant and captain before joining upper management as the inspector of administrative services.
Six years ago, he moved to county administration as the head of adult services in the corrections department. Long considered the understudy to the top job, he succeeded Tom Merkel, who retired, as the head of the department on Jan. 31.
Mark Thompson, who oversees corrections for the county, said he first noticed Cooper’s talents as a leader in the Sheriff’s Office. Thompson praised Cooper’s ability to navigate bureaucracy, his ease with personnel matters and personal commitment to the community through his volunteer work with underprivileged children. “I couldn’t be more pleased,” Thompson said of Cooper’s promotion and work.
Cooper, a New Jersey native who came to Minnesota to play wide receiver for the Gophers, settled in Brooklyn Center and raised two daughters with his wife. He’s also the chairman of the deacon’s ministry at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in north Minneapolis.
As a county administrator, the reliably upbeat Cooper talks about “evidence-based practices to affect change” and using data to make decisions. The aim is to teach offenders coping skills so they don’t come back to the jail. “I am a Hennepin County resident,” Cooper said. “Who do you want living next to you? You want somebody who is law-abiding.”
A key skill is teaching cognitive skills, what the department calls, “thinking for a change,” or “T for C.”
In working with criminals, employees use “motivational interviewing” to help them develop a life plan and goals, he said. He points to the juvenile division’s drop in recidivism as a model for the adult division.
Another whopper of a goal: reducing racial disparities in the system, studying how people land in and flow through the criminal justice system from beginning to end.
Blacks make up 12 percent of Hennepin County’s population, but account for 53 percent of jail bookings. Whites make up 76 percent of the county’s population, but make up 38 percent of jail bookings.
Cooper wants careful analysis, creative solutions and a persistent plan for a “measurably fairer” system.