Sudden Impact

by Caitlin Gipson

When APU Academic Hall of Fame honoree Ron Cochran ’82 walked the prison halls on his first assignment as a San Bernardino County Sheriff, he encountered the unexpected: his former best friend. Behind the bars, he saw a young man who had been a close friend in junior high and high school, accompanied him on family backpacking trips, and watched Cochran play football.

“It was eye-opening and really validated my decision to become a police officer,” Cochran said. “Seeing him drove home how important it was for me to have an impact on kids like my friend, because I’ve seen firsthand where they can end up.”

Cochran determined while at APU that he didn’t like some of what he saw in society around him, and decided that if he wanted to do something about it, he would need to put himself in a position where he could make a difference. He joined the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department in 1984, and more than 25 years later, continues to provide a compelling example of how God can use Christians, whatever their chosen profession, as agents for change.

Cochran came to APU in 1979 via then-APU head football coach Jim Milhon.

“I saw some video of this defensive back for Pomona High School, and he was way too small—just tiny,” Milhon remembered. “I saw this skinny kid level a large running back, and I thought, ‘There’s a lot of fight in him.’ People would ask, ‘Don’t you know how small he is, coach?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, but he can play.’ So we brought him on board.”

The gamble paid off. Cochran went on to lead the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for two years in punt returns, and he still holds APU’s record for pass interceptions, an honor that earned him a place in APU’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

“Ron was one of the top five recruits during my 18 years as head coach,” Milhon said. “During one game against the University of Redlands, he intercepted three passes in a single game. One of those passes would have won the game for Redlands—Ron just tore their heart out.” In addition, he rose to a leadership role on the team. “He was always positive, always smiling, with an incredible work ethic. Ron was an absolute joy to coach.”

During his college career, Cochran also had several experiences that turned his thoughts toward law enforcement. The first involved the tragic death of a teammate during a mugging in Cochran’s own neighborhood. The second was an instance where Cochran experienced racial profiling by an Azusa police officer.

In both cases, Coach Milhon encouraged him to not just get angry, but to think about how he could change things.

“He told me that I had a choice: either I could get bitter, or I could do something about it,” Cochran explained. “So I decided that the best way to change the system was from the inside, by becoming part of it.”

Originally, Cochran had planned to be a parole officer, but an internship placement he received while at APU changed his mind.

“Recidivism was so high—in six months, I saw the same kids three or four times. I realized that I needed to get to these kids sooner, before they were in the system.” The role of a police officer, he discovered, provided that opportunity. “We are right there on the front lines where you can make that decision to arrest or not, and can sit down and talk to these kids about their choices.”

In fact, some of the proudest moments of his 26-year career have been when he’s received calls or letters from kids he’s talked to, sometimes years later.

“Several times kids have contacted me to say that my interactions with them changed the direction of their lives—those moments reinforced to me that God has worked through my career choice.”

Additionally, as Cochran worked his way up the chain of command, he has worked on the system itself.

“In my current role as deputy chief, I affect policy and influence how we deliver services,” he said.

Most recently, he worked with Lifechanging Ministries to mentor children who have parents in prison and arranged for several captains and the sheriff to do the same.

“These mentoring relationships are pretty unorthodox in law enforcement. Police officers aren’t encouraged to get involved with the children of people in custody,” Cochran explained. “But I think, ‘Who better than us?’ We need to be invested in our community, and bridge the gap between those who are in custody and law enforcement. It essentially brings an aspect of ministry to what we do. Also, as an officer, when you get personally involved, often with people of other races and creeds, you are much less likely to be racist yourself.”

And how did his childhood friend react to seeing Cochran on the other side of the bars?

“He said he was happy for me, that I wasn’t getting into the same trouble he was," Cochran said. “Strangely enough, he was proud.”

Seeing that friend there forever changed Cochran, and to this day lends an urgency to his work with the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department, where he is not only the highest-ranking African American in the department’s history, but also in the county and all its allied police departments.

“For me, law enforcement is not about the gun or the power,” said Cochran. “I live for the times we take off the gun belt and play hoops with a kid or just talk to them about their choices. That’s where the real power lies. It’s about changing lives, and helping someone change direction before it’s too late. It’s about making an impact.”