Coming face-to-face with a police officer is something that most of us generally try to avoid. But when a friend from college asked me if I’d be interested in interviewing Ethan, a 24 year-old deputy sheriff working in the town of Troy, Ohio, it took me seconds to say yes. After all, how often is that you meet a Millennial embedded in law enforcement? In recent years, many of us have grown used to images of Millennials being pacified (or worse) by police officers. A 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 65% of Americans still support local law enforcement, but this level of trust conflicts with the more skeptical sentiments expressed by many of the Millennials interviewed for this project. Above all, I was curious to learn what compelled Ethan to earn his badge and shoulder the responsibilities that come with it.
The two of us just outside of Dayton, where Ethan grew up in a middle class home and attended school. He was enjoying the last of three leisurely days off. As we drove up the highway towards Troy, I cut right to the chase and asked Ethan when he first embraced the idea of becoming a police officer.
“The original plan was always for me to attend college first – which I did, majoring in criminal justice. My parents were able to financially support me, but I also paid a good portion of my own way through. And as I began taking classes, I took up an interest in government.”
At first, Ethan toyed with the possibility of attending law school or pursuing politics, but he was troubled by the thought of being sequestered in an office, cut off from the “real world” for long intervals of time.
“I like dealing with people,” Ethan said. “I’m a really social person, I think it’s fun to interact, and I didn’t want a job in which I’d be stuck behind a computer for most of the day, chatting at the water cooler if you’re lucky. I wanted to be out there (I know this sounds corny) helping people. You get a lot of that in police work.”
Following college, Ethan enrolled in a local police academy – during which he was pepper-sprayed and shot with a taser, as necessitated by certification procedures – and worked private security gigs to pay his bills. His first day with the Troy sheriff’s department
“It was kind of terrifying,” Ethan told me, as we pulled into downtown Troy. “You go from this academic environment where you’ve got some control over where you’re going, and then suddenly, you’re on your own. During the first day on the job, my field training officer drove me out to a rural area and asked me, point-blank, “Do you want to do this job?””
“What did you tell him,” I asked, confident that if I were in Ethan’s shoes, I’d have wet myself at this point.
“I said, “I don’t know,” Ethan said. “MY FTO officer said, “That’s the best answer you could have given.” And that was an interesting lesson. 90% of the time you’re in the field, you’re going to have to consult with somebody else. It’s alright to be unsure.”
I was intrigued to hear this from Ethan. Days earlier, I had listened to Kelli discuss the same issue as it related to science and philosophy. Reflecting upon it now, I’m almost tempted to say that Millennials seem to be growing more comfortable with the notion of uncertainty than is generally thought of us. It would be a generalization, but a flattering one.
We drove through downtown Troy, a quaint little hamlet of suburban homes and mom & pop businesses. At a glance, it was difficult to imagine the police being summoned for anything more than…oh, let’s say…someone losing a pair of mittens. But to hear Ethan tell it, the Troy police have their hands full quite routinely. As we approached the police station, Ethan cocked his head towards a forlorn looking bar on a nearby street corner.
“That’s a regular stop for us,” he said. “Mostly people getting loaded and starting fights.”
“The whole process of being assigned to a call is pretty nerve-wracking,” he said. “You see each call pop up on the computer screen in your squad car. And if you’re thinking, “Jeez, I’m not sure what to do in this situation,” you start praying that your number won’t get summoned to address the call. But ultimately, you hit the ground running and learn from the hands-on experience.”
I asked Ethan if he remembered the first call he responded to.
“My first call was a civil protection order violation. This guy was contacting his ex-girlfriend, in violation of a court order that forbade him from doing that. Pretty simple – the guy didn’t want to be cooperative on the phone, so we had to talk to him in-person. And of course, that’s an unnerving prospect.”
Our car came to a halt in the parking lot of the police station – a large brick building that, I learned, could house up to 70 prisoners.
“Before we went out to deal with the guy, my FTO officer told me something really important,” Ethan said, getting out of the car. “Most of the people you’re going to be dealing with are repeat offenders. They’ve indulged in criminal activity for a long time. But they only represent about 1% of the population. The thing you’ve got to realize is that this job can make you very cynical of people the way they act. And since this country is for the people, by the people…that’s something to be avoided.”
I followed Ethan to the building. It was humid and already my jeans were becoming soggy with perspiration. I watched as Ethan swiped a keycard through a slot. There came a metallic “CLANK” from nearby, and a metal door swung open. Nearby, a sign on a chain link fence read, “No Loitering Or Talking To Prisoners.”
The two of us continued inside, and the door closed behind us, locking in place.
[If this interview appears shorter than others, you’re right. What you’ve just read is a teaser. In fact, every interview on driveallnight.org is a teaser. To get the full story – along with many others not posted here – be sure to pick up your copy of Drive All Night. Release dates to be posted.]