YORK – They weren’t an easy 40 years, he admits, but they were rewarding.
Not everyone has liked him along the way, he also admits, but some have said he helped change their lives.
There were long hours away from his family, he recalls, but every once in awhile he realized this is what God intended for his life.
Sgt. Norm Cobb isn’t the same person he was 40 years ago, when in 1972, as a young guy he started his law enforcement career with the York Police Department. Over the years, he became more aware of the realities of humanity, but also of the true sense of forgiveness.
Physically, he’s not the same either. Sgt. Cobb suffered a stroke this year, which put him on long-term medical leave. He officially retired on Sept. 15, the date of when he first donned his police uniform.
“When I started, I was the youngest officer on the force,” Cobb said, smiling. “And on the day of my retirement, I was the oldest. I never imagined that I could go from the youngest to the oldest. It took 40 years to get there.”
Sgt. Cobb continues to work through his physical difficulties, but he says he’s fortunate because he still has his mobility, is not suffering from paralysis . . . and he’s still here.
And ready to enjoy his retirement.
So is his wife, Glenna.
“I don’t think anyone realizes what it’s like to be the wife or kids of a police officer,” she said.
“It’s tough. He was gone a lot and you always have that thought in the back of your mind that maybe something will happen to him. Sure, anything can happen to any of us, but there’s that certain amount of risk that is increased with police work.
“And there’s also the issue of how people feel about you,” she candidly said.
“So many times, we wouldn’t get invited to parties and that type of thing because people didn’t want to have a cop around. Or they were upset with Norm for arresting a family member, that type of thing. It wears on you after a while.”
Sgt. Cobb is most well known as his role of investigator with the York Police Department.
He was heavily involved in undercover work through an exchange program in which officers would do infiltration work in other parts of the state where they weren’t known. He was good at it – but at least one assignment nearly got him killed.
He was working an undercover job in Wayne. The plan was for him to drive recklessly down the main street, without placing the public in danger, with the police chief arresting him in front of the bar where the suspects in a drug case were located.
“It worked – I scuffled with the police chief, resisted arrest, was taken into custody, in order to earn myself a ‘bad boy’ reputation. The group of suspects warmed up to me and I started to hit the bars and gain their trust. Or at least I thought I did.”
What he didn’t realize is that someone from York, who he had arrested earlier, saw him conducting his charade in Wayne . . . and made sure to tip off the suspects.
“Well, they invited me to a party at a sand pit near there and I was getting ready to leave,” Sgt. Cobb remembered.
“Thank goodness the only other police contact I had on their force couldn’t sleep that night and went to the station where he heard another officer say one of his informants said there was a narc in town. He told me not to go to the party and I left town. We later found out that the group had planned to kill me and hide my body in the water.”
Cobb trained extensively in drug investigations through the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Nebraska State Patrol regarding covert operations.
One of the most memorable times of his career was a massive investigation he initiated regarding a large drug ring that involved the manufacturing and distribution of methamphetamine in York County.
He said with assistance from undercover informants and agents through the Rural Apprehension Program, the YPD and the York County Sheriff’s Department were able to do a large sweep of arrests in 2000. More than 30 people were taken into custody - all were convicted with some going to federal prison.
“It didn’t solve the meth problem here, because it’s still here,” Sgt. Cobb said.
“But what it did was bring our community to the realization of how big the problem is. It put a strong message out there that we’re taking a no-nonsense approach to this problem and there will be consequences for breaking the law in this way.”
But it also took its toll on Sgt. Cobb.
“Meth affects families and there’s a lot of inherent problems with those arrests. It’s necessary to end that criminal activity, but it also created a lot of sadness and ill will toward me and my family. I was feeling the weight of it all and I pulled over in my cruiser. I asked God for direction. I was tired of the stress for me and my family. I was tired of the risk it placed on my family. I wanted to know if God wanted me in this profession. I needed a sign.”
The next morning, a woman walked into the police station, wanting to speak with him. Information about her estranged husband led to the closure of two cold homicide cases – more than a decade old.
Sgt. Cobb was able to garner a confession from Todd Baker, who admitted that he killed two Nebraska women. Their bodies were found, their families found closure and Baker was given two life sentences.
“That experience impacted me greatly,” Sgt. Cobb said, noting that the victims’ families’ resolution was the sign he needed.
Forty years of experiences have shaped Sgt. Cobb into who he is today. But one of the biggest moments of his career, as well as his personal life, happened when he was still in his 20s.
“His name was Jim Richardson, he was my lifelong friend,” Sgt. Cobb said, wiping tears from his eyes.
“We grew up together. I happened to be home, in Stratton, to visit my folks, and Jim was on leave from the Army. He said he was still struggling with the fact he’d nearly lost his life in a bombing – that the reality of life and death really hit him.
We talked, found a pastor, and he committed his life to Christ. And he said if he survived (his military service) he was going to go into police work” as Sgt. Cobb had already done.
Richardson fulfilled his plan by also becoming a police officer on the York department in 1976. The two worked the night shift together, as partners and friends.
On a particular night, out of the blue, Sgt. Cobb said that Officer Richardson turned to him, and said, “I don’t have much more time, I’m not going to be here much longer.”
“What do you mean? Are you going to a different department?” Sgt. Cobb asked him, confused about his statement.
“He told me that he knew he was going to die soon, he just had that feeling,” Sgt. Cobb said. “I told him the conversation was over and I didn’t want to hear any more about it.”
Three months passed by.
“We were both on patrol that night,” Sgt. Cobb said, eyes wet as he looked down at his hands.
“I remember we went to a dance at Cullen Hall to do ID checks. As we were leaving, he threw me a quarter and asked me to go back inside to get him some popcorn. So I did. The music was really loud and I didn’t hear my radio. When I went outside, he was gone. That’s when I heard on the radio that there were reports of possible gun shots or maybe it was just a car backfiring, on North Blackburn. He had left to respond to the call.”
Officer Jim Richardson didn’t come back from that call. He became the first and only York Police officer to be killed in the line of duty, as he was shot while getting out of his patrol car.
The suspect was taken into custody and Officer Richardson’s body was transported to Metz Mortuary.
“I was struggling emotionally, I was devastated,” Sgt. Cobb said.
He was given the order to photograph his friend’s body, collect his uniform as evidence.
“It was horrible, but I had to do it,” Sgt. Cobb said. “I asked Mr. Harris (the mortician) if I could be alone with Jim. I was distraught.
I held his hand and in my heart I was screaming ‘Why God? Why God?’ And that’s when I heard a voice that was so real. The voice simply said, ‘He is with me.’ I know in my heart that something happened, it was real. And it was at that moment that I forgave the man who killed him, because I knew Jim was with our Lord.”
Officer Richardson’s parents were enroute from Indiana where they had been vacationing. They asked Sgt. Cobb to retrieve their son’s belongings from the small apartment he’d been renting.
“We were collecting his things and that’s when we saw this,” Sgt. Cobb said, displaying an aged, yellowed piece of paper.
“It was just sitting in his typewriter, this poem that he had apparently just typed,” Sgt. Cobb said.
“And look, he typed his name at the end of it, because he composed it, he wrote it. And just like he had predicted he was going to die, it seemed as if he intended to leave this there for me, to find, after he was gone. I think he knew he was going to die that night.’
The poem, entitled “I’ll Be There,” seems to speak directly to Sgt. Cobb about their brotherhood. One line says, ‘Look up my friend for I’ll be there.’ It’s apparent that Sgt. Cobb has read that piece of paper many times over the years, evidenced by several aged pieces of scotch tape over small tears.
“I think that’s what drove me to continue being a cop,” Sgt. Cobb said. “He was only 24 when he died and I was determined to not let people forget about him, to remember who he was and the work he stood for. I guess I just thought that by continuing on, I was somehow keeping his memory alive.”
Although he’s hung up his police uniform and turned in his gun, Sgt. Cobb’s life is far from over, he says. He plans to do some vacationing and spend time with his family.
“It’s been a long, interesting 40 years,” Sgt. Cobb said. “It was just what I was meant to do.”