Chip Coldren 1_web
Local News

Chip Coldren works his way from drugs to justice

A nationally renowned expert on law enforcement, Coldren travels the country to work with members of the criminal justice community, performing research, evaluation and consultation to drive real change in departments.

It’s tough to keep up with James “Chip” Coldren. Depending on when you call him, he may be enjoying time at home in Flossmoor, visiting a Cook County detention center, or consulting with police departments out-of-state.

  James “Chip” Coldren learned
  to play bagpipes from his
(Provided photo)

A nationally renowned expert on law enforcement, Coldren travels the country to work with members of the criminal justice community, performing research, evaluation and consultation to drive real change in departments. 

Throughout his decades-long career Coldren has helped implement restorative justice programs and fought for equity while serving his personal mission of improving the justice system.

Coldren recently attended a professional conference that centered on trauma-informed policing, sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Assistance and facilitated by the organization where he works.

“It’s focused on getting people to understand, both on the law enforcement side and the community side, what the impacts of trauma are,” Coldren said. “When an officer is dealing with someone who has experienced trauma, they can learn how to help serve them better.”

Coldren now serves as the director of the Center on Justice Research and Innovation in the Institute for Public Research at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, Va.

In his work, he studies community policing and crime reduction, among other law enforcement topics.

Body-worn cameras are of particular interest to Coldren; he currently works as the lead investigator for a study evaluating the impact of cameras worn by correctional officers in a Virginia adult detention center. 

Locally, Coldren serves as one of two deputy monitors for the consent decree issued by a federal judge in January 2019 that mandated oversight of the Chicago Police Department.

Called to a career in justice
Visiting prisons, working with police departments, managing federal oversight programs — these are weighty tasks, requiring both intense intellectual and emotional stamina. 

To explain why he remains committed to his vocation despite the long hours and difficult subject matter, Coldren recalls a message he received at an early age that still drives him to this day.

“The responsibility I feel comes from something my mom told me when I was really young: that I have to take care of other people,” he said. “I was probably 11 when she told me that. I always felt this expectation that I had responsibility that way, to take care of others.”

Shortly after instilling this core value in her son, Coldren’s mother died of suicide. She had suffered from drug addiction and depression, Coldren said, and the illnesses caught up with her. In their tiny New Jersey town, Coldren’s father was left to raise five children, including Coldren’s oldest sister, who was developmentally disabled.

Rocked by his mother’s death and overwhelmed by home life, Coldren quickly became consumed by drug and alcohol use. Though he helped take care of his siblings and the family home, he led a self-destructive life.

“I never got any counseling to deal with the grief of my mom’s death. I became a very angry young boy and internalized my anger,” Coldren said. “I got involved with drugs and did some relatively minor law-breaking. Nothing too bad, but I was not a good citizen and I was well known by law enforcement.”

It gets worse before better
As he went through high school, Coldren started spiraling out of control. He was showing up to school drunk, using drugs heavily and staying up for days at a time. 

It continued until the first day of junior year, when Coldren said his new history teacher ignited a spark inside the young man. Mr. Mason’s lesson was entertaining, compelling. 

“He gave us a ton of homework on the first day. I went home that day and I took care of my family responsibilities, and then I sat down and did all my homework,” Coldren said. 

“I was so tired that I got a full night’s sleep for the first time in three months. I ran to school the next morning.”

He stopped doing drugs and started studying. He became captain of the wrestling team. Coldren’s whole life turned around after that day. His education continued at Rutgers University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

While at Rutgers, Coldren had two formative experiences. He finally received grief counseling for the death of his mother, after answering an advertisement from a student looking for students to volunteer in a therapy group for her master’s thesis project.

Additionally, Coldren volunteered at Trenton State Prison as an escort for prisoners who were allowed to work in the community. He was only about 19 at the time, responsible for inmates serving life in prison — and that’s only because the death penalty wasn’t yet legal.

“It had a profound transformational impact on my career and my life, and my interest in working in the criminal justice system,” Coldren said. “When you have regular interactions with people who are incarcerated, you come to realize there aren’t many differences between the people behind bars and the people in front of them.”

Making direct contact
Seeing incarceration up close made Coldren want to dedicate his career to improving the system, including making things safer for members of law enforcement while ensuring the rights of citizens with whom they interact. 

His work continues to put him in direct contact with people who are incarcerated, and the problems he sees are palpable to him, including racial inequities within the criminal justice system.

“I figured out by making some observations and getting into a fair amount of trouble with the law myself, that because I was a white person I was being treated differently than black people,” Coldren said. 

As his career developed, Coldren’s education continued, and he earned master’s and doctorate degrees in sociology from University of Chicago. During this time, he worked in a number of jobs, including:

  • Director of the Police Training Institute at University of Illinois at Chicago
  • Court-appointed monitor of the Cook County Jail, visiting weekly for five years
  • President of the John Howard Association for Prison Reform
While his career has left a lasting imprint on law enforcement officers throughout the country, Coldren performed some of his most important work close to home. He served as a professor of Criminal Justice at Governors State University for 10 years.

During his time there, Coldren taught probably hundreds of students who went on to careers in law enforcement in the South Suburbs. On, his former students call Coldren a caring and dedicated teacher.

In addition to influencing his individual students at GSU, Coldren created the school’s master’s program in Criminal Justice and a doctoral program in Leadership. 

Dancing, piping and his ‘Chicago girl’
Despite growing up in New Jersey, Coldren adopted Chicago as his hometown when he moved here for college in 1973. 

  With a debonair dip, Chip
  Coldren dances with his
  daughter, Elaine, at her wedding.
  Coldren enjoys Latin and swing
(Provided photo)

The Chicago area is where he met and married his wife, Mary Novak. Though they spent nine years living in Maryland for Novak’s job with IBM, they returned to Flossmoor in 1993.

“I stayed in Chicago and got married to a Chicago girl,” Coldren said. “For her career we moved out East for nine years. But I told her when we left Chicago in ’84 that we would come back eventually.”

Now retired from IBM, Novak works as a piano teacher. She and Coldren have two children, Lance Coldren, who played hockey at H-F High School and is now a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, and Elaine Coldren, who played soccer at H-F and is now a pediatrician working for Northwestern Medical School. 

Coldren said he and Novak love to socialize with Flossmoor neighbors, and sometimes head downtown to see a play or do some swing and Latin dancing.

“I’m also a bagpiper,” Coldren said. “My dad was a collector of bagpipes and ran a museum outside Baltimore. My dad and I didn’t have a lot in common. As I became an adult, we bonded over bagpiping.”

For more than 20 years, Coldren actively played with the Chicago Stockyard Kelty Band, marching in the South Side Irish Parade for 15 years.

Encouraging everyone to see all sides
Spending decades talking with prisoners, working with law enforcement officers, and studying criminal justice systems nationally and abroad has given Coldren a unique perspective on the U.S. system and its future.

His work now emphasizes a more evidence-based approach to policing and criminal justice. Coldren talked proudly about his reputation and that of his organization, which he said affect real change. 

“We’re known as an organization that has a good track record for achieving transformative results in police departments … that had very serious problems with shootings of people of color, abuses of power, lack of connection to their communities,” he said.

Building connections between citizens and law enforcement helps to reduce crime and also increase the safety of police interactions, Coldren said.

In London, for example, he observed a system where members of the community regularly visit juveniles in incarceration. These types of interactions help people understand that prisoners aren’t so different from them, Coldren said. 

“They’re still human beings who have birthdays and miss their moms,” he said. “They’re regular people who have gotten in trouble.”

Coldren said people can reach out to those who are incarcerated through pen pal programs, tutoring or by volunteering with a criminal justice organization. 

With the perspective of his current role, Coldren also encourages citizens to learn more about how law enforcement works. Citizen police academies, such as the one in Flossmoor, can introduce civilians to the mentality and procedures of their local department.

“I wish people would take time to learn about what actually happens in a police department, a courtroom, a corrections facility. If they did, I think they would come away having more respect for the justice system, rather than less,” Coldren said. 

“These are complex and difficult jobs in unusual conditions. The people doing them are by and large hard-working, well meaning, thoughtful people. Sometimes they work in a system that doesn’t allow them to help as much as they want to.”

News by email

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Free weekly newsletter

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
Most read stories this week

Community Calendar