Healers & Builders 2021: Peace officer Jamar Cotton seeks to uplift community

Damien D. Willis
Las Cruces Sun-News
Jamar Cotton educates the community and responds to crises through the Doña Ana County Sheriff's Office. Pictured Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.

Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories on Healers and Builders, citizens who will heal, safeguard and push forward the greater Las Cruces area in 2021.

LAS CRUCES - When Jamar Cotton moved to Las Cruces from New Jersey to play football for New Mexico State University, he was not sure what he would find.

“For me, it was a life change,” Cotton explained. “I wanted to go somewhere I’d never been before — someplace I could start with a clean slate. I didn’t know anything about New Mexico. But I felt like it might be a good place to start over, and then help others change their lives in a positive way.”

What he found was a community he has since made his own.

COVID-19 through the eyes of a first responder

Cotton, now a deputy with the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Department, found himself on the front lines when the COVID-19 pandemic set in. Cotton is currently a patrol deputy, but many of his day-to-day duties — including speaking to students through the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) and Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) programs — grinded to a halt.

“This year has been a drastic change,” he said. “As somebody who is a community advocate, and who is used to being out and about, talking to kids and doing motivational speaking — it’s been a drastic change. We haven’t been able to have those gatherings like we were prior to the pandemic.”

He instead found himself constantly looking for other ways to help community members in need. And he was quick to notice just how many Las Crucens were struggling — economically, psychologically and emotionally.

“It’s easy to be negative when things are going wrong,” he said. “The hardest thing to do is to help people find a bright spot when things aren’t going in the right direction.”

It’s a lesson Cotton has learned all-too-well.

A tough beginning

Cotton grew up in poverty, raised by a single mother in Irvington, New Jersey. Living in the inner city, he lived with the dangers of gangs and drugs every day. Several times during his early life, the family found themselves homeless.

“We bounced around from shelter to shelter, lived in back hallways at times, moved from apartment to apartment,” he said. “There were times when we had no place to call home.”

Growing up in a city he describes as “overpopulated, with scarce resources and opportunities,” Cotton said the streets brought a mix of negativity and positivity.

Related:Meet Jamar Cotton, the Doña Ana County deputy recognized as a 'True Hero'

“Yeah, there was a lot of negative. But some of those people on the streets encouraged me to be better, encouraged me to get out,” he said. “There were a lot of challenges, but there were a lot of great things that happened, too. It allowed me to become a stronger person.”

Cotton found solace and encouragement in sports. He excelled at sports, and had coaches who mentored him — who were able to help him see a better future for himself, beyond his current life.

Jamar Cotton educates the community and responds to crises through the Doña Ana County Sheriff's Office. Pictured Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.

A whole new world

In 2005, Cotton moved to Las Cruces and enrolled at New Mexico State University. For four years — from 2006 to 2010 — he was an outside linebacker and defensive end for the Aggie football team. And, while pursuing his education, he became immersed in the community.

“I started getting involved in programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters, and became an ambassador at NMSU with Black Student Programs, working with Chicano Programs, Indian Affairs, and other programs like that,” Cotton said.

He was an active member of Phi Beta Sigma, and later the Prince Hall Masons. He put in thousands of hours of community service, helping out wherever he could, including the Gospel Rescue Mission and Mesilla Valley Community of Hope.

“I was looking for any place I could make an impact, tell my story and influence people in a positive way,” he said. “Where people might think that, because of how they grew up or the situation that they were in, that there was no way to turn around.”

Cotton earned two Education degrees from NMSU, a bachelor’s in Early Childhood Education and a master’s in Curriculum and Instruction, before becoming a law enforcement officer — which, in conversation, he notably calls a “peace officer.” He plans to return one day to earn his doctorate.

He now has a family, and is raising four boys who call Las Cruces home.

Jamar and Gabriela Cotton are pictured with their family in Las Cruces on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. The boys, from left, are: Jamar Cotton Jr., age 1, David Favela, 9, Kayden Cotton, 4, and Jeremiah Cotton, 9.

Role in rebuilding

Looking ahead at 2021, Cotton sees his role in the community’s recovery from the pandemic as a continuation of what he’s done for the past 15 years.

“It’s important that everybody understands that it’s a community effort; we can’t be divided by categories or classes. At the end of the day, it’s about humanity,” he said. “We have to come together, as human beings, to heal the hurt and pain in our community.”

Regardless of what uniforms we wear, he said, we all need one another to be better. And it will require us to set aside divisions, reach out to our neighbors and help those who are in need.

Related:Doña Ana County deputy attempts to break hugging record

“In 2021, we’ve got to step out of the box,” he said. “Because we know what it looks like to keep doing the same things. We know what it looks like when we don’t give ourselves a chance. We know what it looks like when we just focus on the negative. But if we start doing something differently — even if it’s just one task that you didn’t do in 2020, that could have helped change one thing for positive, just one thing — we’ll put ourselves in a whole better place as a community. We’ll begin to grow in a direction that’s going to make us better.”

Cotton plans to continue spreading his message, every chance he gets, and letting others know that they are not alone.

Jamar Cotton educates the community and responds to crises through the Doña Ana County Sheriff's Office. Pictured Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.

Learning through conversation

An educator at heart, Cotton repeatedly stresses the importance of effective communication. He understands that recovering and rebuilding after a difficult 2020 — and all it brought with it — will not happen overnight.

“It’s a long-term process,” he said. “I don’t plan on just going out and having these conversations one day, or one month, or one year. This is something I’ve been doing for years now, since I’ve been in New Mexico. I’ve been trying to change mindsets, and change how our community looks, feels and understands. I feel that has enriched a lot of people and has helped in the healing and building within our community.”

He said he’ll continue reaching out to those in need, offering an ear, encouraging words or a helping hand, every chance he gets. And he encourages others to do the same.

More:Deputy honored for youth drug, alcohol prevention work

At its core, Cotton’s message is singular, and he’ll share it with anybody who’s willing to listen.

“Everybody has a story. Where your story starts doesn’t dictate where you finish.”

Read about more Healers and Builders in Las Cruces. Know of someone in the community who deserves similar recognition? Email us.

Damien Willis is a Lead Reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News. He can be reached at 575-541-5443, dwillis@lcsun-news.com or @DamienWillis on Twitter.