From Blue Collar Life to Police Brass
Published in the 9/30/09 print issue of the Suburban Journals/Collinsville Herald
From blue collar life to police brass
Collinsville assistant chief takes long route to front office
Tom Coppotelli describes his childhood in Washington Park as something straight out of “Leave it to Beaver,” complete with days playing ball on dusty baseball diamonds, roaming the streets with friends and hurrying home for dinner with his dad who worked on the railroad.
Back then, it seemed he was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps into a blue collar life.But that changed when Coppotelli was 18 and he was hired as a part-time police officer in National City, the mostly industrial area off Illinois Route 3 that housed the Saint Louis National Stock Yards. The self-described mischievous child said that his dad’s response to his career choice was ironic.
“He joked, ‘I guess you want to be a cop so you can ride in the front seat,'” Coppotelli recalled, while chuckling to himself behind his desk at the Collinsville Police Department.
His mischievous grin and hearty laugh is a staple at the police department, where after 20 years with the department, Coppotelli is now an assistant chief, one of two management positions in the 40-staff agency. Along the way, he’s become the primary spokesman for the agency, sending out media releases and talking with reporters for stories.
The job carries a salary of $73,605 a year, according to the city budget.
It’s a position that Coppotelli, 45, has worked hard to achieve.
“I know where I started and I know where I’m at – I try not to forget where I came from,” he said. “I like to stay grounded and I think I do a pretty good job at that.”
Rising through the ranks
An Althoff Catholic High School graduate, Coppotelli also worked in Washington Park before landing a patrolman position in Collinsville in 1990.
“I came in at the right time,” Coppotelli said. “It was a turning point for the department – we were starting to modernize.”
Over the years, both the department and Coppotelli have experienced significant changes. Coppotelli, a graduate of Southwestern Illinois College and Lindenwood University, went from patrol to investigations to the Drug Enforcement Administration Task Force and was promoted to sergeant, lieutenant, and ultimately, major, earning multiple certifications.
His impact on the department has not gone unnoticed. “Obviously, he is a big part of this department,” said Chief Scott Williams.
Over the same time span, the department opened a new headquarters and instituted a laundry list of new procedures.
“I’m a shameless supporter of the department,” Coppotelli said. “My job is easy. We’ve set the bar very high here. It’s a different force, a different lifestyle; it’s not the same department that it was in 1969.”
And neither is Coppotelli. The once-mischievous child has seen the other side of trouble. “You see a lot of terrible things,” Coppotelli said. “My wife says I’m cynical, but I treat this like a business. If I send you to prison, I don’t take it personally.”
Coppotelli said that he thinks there is a natural conditioning to the job as long “you don’t take it home with you.”
His advice is something that he said he has not always taken. “You have to have a good mix and can’t let the job consume you. I say that hypocritically, though, because I’ve done it and it’s a big strain on the family,” Coppotelli said. “That’s the worst part of it – I’m most proud of my family.”
Although his new wife of two years, two children, two stepchildren and two grandchildren are the highlight of his life, Coppotelli said that the department is clearly a close second. “I love these people here,” Coppotelli said. “The department becomes your family.”
He never breaks his golden rule, though. “I refuse to have a serious conversation about work outside of work,” Coppotelli said. “You’ve got to get away.”
While away, Coppotelli spends his time “trying to golf” and relaxing with his family.
At work, Williams said that Coppotelli manages to “keep things lively” in a potentially stressful environment. “He has a gregarious personality – clearly a sense of humor,” the chief said.
Coppotelli agreed. “I’m just a goof. I try not to take myself so seriously. I’m a human being – I just happen to be the assistant chief, too.”
– Shannon Philpott