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Identity & Community

Virginia, D.C. Police Recruiting Pittsburgh Area High Schoolers

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA

High school senior Logan Tewell said he needs to start working out.

The Bedford County 17 year old said he's interested in a career with the Pennsylvania State Police, so Trooper Brian Arrington told him the usual stuff. Keep your grades up, stay out of trouble and keep on the right path. 

“He definitely did emphasize on physical requirements,” Tewell said.

Born in the late 1990s, Tewell is at the tail end of the millennial generation, the nation's largest since the Baby Boom. As post-World War II children reach retirement age, the ranks of law enforcement agencies will swell with millennials – if agencies can recruit them.

While Tewell strolled through the Pittsburgh Technical Institute’s small Criminal Justice Expo on Wednesday, he and other students said their interest in law enforcement isn't one openly shared by many of their friends. 

 The school's criminal justice chair Scott Domowicz said interest is steady. Fifty-five students will begin PTI’s criminal justice associate’s degree program in October, up from 48 students last year and 33 in 2005.

“They really are gravitating towards this,” Domowicz said. “It doesn’t seem to be very difficult for us to encourage students to pursue this line of career.”

Despite recent high-profile shootings of unarmed black people by police and subsequent demonstrations against police brutality, a recent survey from multimedia company Fusion found that 83 percent of the 1,000 millennials surveyed think of police as “good guys.” About 67 percent of black teens concurred, though 42 percent reported at least one negative experience with law enforcement.

Several students at the PTI event said they think police get an undeserved, negative reputation, and that law enforcement officers deserve respect and should act respectfully toward community members in return.

Detective Victoria Byerson served for 8.5 years in the U.S. Army before joining the Fairfax County police force in 2004. She said the department came to Pittsburgh to recruit at the expo as part of an ongoing effort to diversify their ranks.

She held the attention of four young women from Jeannette High School for nearly half an hour as she explained the ins and outs of police work.

“A lot of them watch a lot of television, so they think you can just go around chasing people,” Byerson said afterward. “You have procedures you must follow. When you come to a traffic light, you have to stop. You can’t blow through that light just because you have lights and sirens on.”

Indeed, the four young women said they idolize Sgt. Olivia Benson, a character from the long-running crime drama Law & Order: SVU. (They aren’t alone – a recent survey named Benson as America’s favorite female TV character, something NBC is capitalizing on to promote the show's season premier Wednesday night.)

Junior Cecelia Martz of Jeannette High School said it’s important to have female role models in law enforcement, and that she wants to see more women pursue careers in criminal justice.

“I’m a very strong feminist,” she said. “I think that there shouldn’t be gender-specific roles for anything, especially police officers.”