By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
On his first call as a police officer, Alex Couch handcuffed and searched the suspect of a physical assault on a doctor.
On the last day of his first week on the job, Couch started the day by talking down a person with schizophrenia from throwing rocks at passing cars, answered a call from a woman with intellectual challenges who was accusing her family of abuse and ended the day with his head on a swivel in a dangerous situation.
“That was my first homicide call, and we joined the search (for the suspect). We searched up and down the road banks,” he said later that day via phone from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he joined the police department. “That was pretty intense, knowing you are looking for someone who just did something unspeakable. There is a lot of pressure on you.”
Welcome to the danger of police work.
Couch said it’s what he feels called to do, even in some of the most challenging times for police officers, and his education at Grand Canyon University has helped him already.
Those mental health-related calls during his first week were all covered in his Justice Studies courses at GCU, from which he graduated in April 2020.
“They have a lot to do with my final classes in community policing, which is what we do now,” he said. “We go out and talk to people, get to know what their problems are and not just be reactive but be proactive.”
Many Justice Studies students become police officers, and GCU does an excellent job of preparing them for new community policing models, said Kevin Walling, Chair of Justice Studies, Government and History in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
“We are trying our best to provide the community with better services, instead of being all about force,” he said.
It’s a difficult time in police work. Last summer’s death of George Floyd in Minneapolis heightened the ongoing debate over police officers’ use of force, especially involving race.
“Policing is more and more restrictive,” Couch said.
Yet from boyhood in New Mexico, he always thought he would be a cop. His uncle, Lieutenant Jim Edison of the Albuquerque police force, introduced him to fellow officers at family gatherings and took him on ride-alongs as a teen.
“I just loved being around cops – I was always around them,” he said. “I found it’s a really hard job. A lot of the stuff you see is rough. But when people call you, they really need you. When they call you, they are having probably the worst moment of their life, so they need someone there like me to help solve their problem for them because they can’t do it for themselves.”
But by the time he graduated from high school and found GCU, he wasn’t sure. He thought maybe corporate law would be a better route and figured he would major in business and eventually go to law school.
“Before I started, I had an epiphany,” he said, remembering those times with his uncle.
“I loved the idea of helping people. I truly believe God puts people on Earth to do one thing. I think God put me on Earth to be a police officer.”
He switched to Justice Studies and learned about important civil cases that affect law enforcement. He joined discussions on police use of force when an incident hit the news and liked a classroom environment where students didn’t have to be afraid to ask questions and debate was civil “with no one’s feelings hurt and no one stomping out shouting.”
“The biggest takeaway from GCU is that anything you can put your mind to, you can do. They drill that into us,” he said. “I know I’m a heck of a different person from when I started.”
It was the community policing emphasis in his later courses that he said put him a step ahead when he joined the police academy in September to begin seven months of training to be an officer.
“The biggest thing is it’s not like what you see on TV – kicking down doors, shooting all the time and saying bad--- catch phrases,” he said. “The details are what really matters. How you talk. How you carry yourself.”
The hardest part was learning to deal with stress. He said he grew up in a nice house with a nice family, played sports and joined a loving, calm environment at GCU. Then he was thrust into a stressful world 24-7.
“Police academy instructors yell at us and make us do pushups, just trying to stress out, so when we are stressed in real life, we can handle the challenge,” he said.
After graduating from the academy in early March, he quickly found out on his first week on the job that the stress training came in handy. He was dealing with people with mental challenges or substance abuse issues who often live on the street. He found he is good at talking to people, calming them down so issues don’t escalate.
“We have to take control of the scene and still be in charge, but also not be so aggressive that we push them over the edge so force has to be used,” Couch said.
His department has faced scrutiny for its use of force in the past. Paperwork is important to justify every action you take, he said.
“Police are getting prosecuted more. Then you are in the news, your family suffers, and your public image is destroyed,” he said. “But even though some people say they hate the police, people do really need police. They need someone to go out and help the people.
“Someone has to do it. Why shouldn’t it be me?”
Albuquerque is among the most dangerous cities in the U.S., with crime rates 3.5 times the national average. So when he first lowered himself into the police car that first day, he thought: “Holy crap, I’m a cop. I’ve got to patrol this city.”
Just days later, he was in that ditch looking for a suspect believed to be dangerous. The 10 officers in the search eventually caught the man, Couch said, and he could go home to his dog and recount the day with two roommates who are also officers.
“‘Hey, this happened, and it was crazy.’ Sharing the stories instead of bottling them up can help you relax and get ready for the next day,” he said.
“Someone has to be there for the people.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.