BY EMILY MONACELLI
ELKHART -- A retired Elkhart police officer who spent two years in Iraq doing a different type of police work has returned.
Brett Coppins spent 20 years on Elkhart's police force, working in various roles from field supervisor on the department's drug unit to a detective and a public information officer. He retired from the police department in 2006, then deployed in November 2008 as an international police adviser on contract with the U.S. State Department.
"We were embedded with the military, we being policemen from all over the world," he said. "During those two years there, I lived, worked, ate with some of the most brilliant military and the most brilliant law enforcement minds throughout the world, most of which did come from throughout the United States."
Coppins spent his first year working in a secret training camp in Balad, Iraq, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. There, he taught about 30 Iraqi police officers basic police skills and mentored and trained other police officers in nearby police stations to teach them skills of the westernized world.
"Saddam Hussein really cut them out from technology," Coppins said. "They didn't have cell phones. They didn't have Internet. They didn't have computers until after 2003. All of the technology that most of the world had experienced, a lot of that was really kept off of their learning plate."
When his contract was extended and he was promoted to a senior criminal investigations adviser, Coppins taught investigators in Kurdistan how to interview witnesses and how to properly gather fingerprints and DNA. He worked with them on cold-case homidicides and on investigating other major crimes from as early as 2003 and 2004.
"These are brilliant people -- the Iraqi officers and the Iraqi investigators the last year that I've had the opportunity to spend time with -- they're brilliant," Coppins said. "They know their jobs. The areas that they're lacking in is how to properly investigate with technology. A lot of times it's because they don't have the equipment."
In one case, a 14-year-old boy had been kidnapped. During the exchange, one terrorist was killed and another was captured. Within 24 hours, Coppins and the Iraqi intelligence agents found the house where the kidnappers had kept and killed the boy. The investigators made 125 arrests within the next seven days.
"To experience a case like that, the brilliance of these Kurdistan and Asayesh and the provincal police, and combining what they have already and always done, with the technology that we have," said Coppins, was mostly due to their understanding of the value of collecting information. That's something that U.S. police forces could learn from, he said.
Coppins said he worked alongside and built friendships with police officers who have been at war, have been shot or shot at, and have been victims of attacks by improvised explosive devices. Several of their colleagues have been killed. Their cars often are marred by bullet holes. They make about $500 to $600 a month.
The reality of Iraqi police officers' jobs is something Coppins said he was not prepared for, but he said he never felt unsafe. He said his 20 years of experience at the Elkhart Police Department and four years at the Benton Harbor Police Department helped him mentor Iraqi police.
"The biggest thing there is not really about what you know," he said. "It's really about your ability to communicate, your ability to get along and your ability to built rapport with brilliant people. They don't care what you know until they know you care."
Coppins was offered another contract extension to stay in Iraq, but he chose to stay home after being there for 25 months. He said for now, he will concentrate on his private investigation business, Coppins Investigative and Security Group.