Officer Juan Sanchez will never again march into the Letts-Anderson Quad to break up a fight, dash into McDowell Hall to help a sick student, or cruise the quad smiling in a Public Safety SUV. After seven years at AU, “Sanchez,” as he was known by students, has left the school to become a federal police officer.
Two weeks ago-a week after being sworn in as a Department of Defense police officer-Sanchez told The Eagle that even though he could have been an officer someplace else, he became a university police officer because it gave him a chance to help transition kids from the shelter of often-consequence-free high school life to the real world of college and beyond. He spent time-during shifts and even on his days off-befriending many students, even counseling some.
“I felt I was very open and easy to reach. A lot of stuff I did on my own time,” he said. “To me, my concern was to help people…to work and to help out wherever I can.”
He enjoyed working with college students, he said, because it is during college when many students make mistakes that irreparably damage their entire lives. Public Safety officers, he said, are empowered to act and arrest like any other D.C. police officer but spend most of their time working within AU’s conduct system. There are two results of this approach: Students generally face less punishment and official documentation when Public Safety deals with them, but the drawback, Sanchez says, is that “when we give ‘em a break they think we don’t have the authority that the D.C. police do,” which is not the case.
“If people want a good job they can’t have a record… And if you’re a student you can think something is a joke-and it’s not,” he said.
“If Public Safety deals with you they don’t lock you up. You should feel happy about that because they’re not ruining your life,” said the officer, who started off his career as a police officer in Maryland working with elementary and high school kids. “I felt like a parent in a lot of ways-be it friend to some people, and as an advisor to others.”
Sanchez, who says he has spent time as a street cop, said that for him and for many officers, working at a university setting provides many other advantages.
“Here it’s a different environment. It’s not the same as working in the street. At least here you know who you’re dealing with… AU is like a township within the city [D.C.],” he said.
Even though most of Sanchez’s work involved taking reports, counseling students, and responding to routine calls, Sanchez said that at times the job of a Public Safety officer can be a real drain.
“Sometimes you would end up going home with it,” he said.
The campus drug bust a year and a half ago, suicide attempts, other students he counseled away from hurting themselves, watching people make mistakes that would haunt them forever-police work can be hard on an officer, he said, and also on their family.
Sanchez speaks from experience. He’s on his second marriage, he says, and one of the reasons he came to AU in the first place instead of working for a department where he might have seen more action was in the interests of saving his then-20 year long first marriage. And, he figured, working at AU would make him more available to his own kids. He ultimately divorced, he said, but remarried last year and has two kids: one 20, the other 16.
Born in Cuba, Sanchez moved to the U.S. with his family in 1967 at the age of five. He was a passenger aboard the last of President John F. Kennedy’s “Freedom Flights” of Cuban immigrants. For the Spanish-speaking Cuban boy, the move to Washington-a predominantly black city-during the late 1960s was a real shock.
“We ran from communism to the almost internal war here… I was picked on by the black kids for being Hispanic and I was picked on by the white kids for being a minority,” he recalls.
Over thirty years later Sanchez the grown-up spends his time playing baseball and soccer-and Salsa dancing, as demonstrated by a tape of the dancing lawman that aired on ATV two years ago.
One co-worker and friend, Leonard Jukkala, said that Sanchez “was very well known by most of the students, and when the students think of Public Safety he is probably the face they put to it,” Jukkala said. “And I think at University-sponsored events like the senior cruise he was never shy to be dancing with the students.”
Sanchez plans to spend the next 20 years with his new employer: the federal government.
Ã¿As a Department of Defense police officer, Sanchez is now responsible for helping protect DOD property, ranging from the Pentagon to the Naval Security Complex across Ward Circle. He thinks, though, that his agency may soon be absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security-a move that could result (he says happily for him and his family) in his moving to Florida.
No matter what lies ahead for Sanchez, he says he’s happy to have spent so many years at AU. “It was nice,” he says. “Different from the street.”
“I really got a chance to help a lot of kids.”Ã¿ Some people, he recalls, were beyond his help, and sometimes there are just too many.Ã¿
“You wish you could reach everybody-that’s really the main job for Public Safety.”