News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 10, 2011

WHY I SERVE: The police officer

Brian Boyce
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Joe Watts heard the calling to wear a police uniform early in life.

“I tell everyone that as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a state trooper,” Watts says.

With more than 30 years experience as a public servant, the veteran Indiana State Police Trooper said the drive to help people in need is at the core of those who answer the call.

Now a sergeant and public information officer for the Putnamville Post, Watts is a 1980 graduate of Montezuma High School, where he was a three-sport athlete in basketball, baseball and cross country.

While attending Ivy Tech Community College and Indiana State University, Watts worked full time as an emergency medical technician for the Parke County Ambulance Service for four years while serving as a part-time dispatcher for that county’s sheriff’s department.

But the sharp image of state troopers and their professionalism still had the same draw it did when he was a young child, he said.

“Not everyone gets to do the job they want to do,” Watts said, adding he doesn’t take it for granted that he’s one of the lucky few.

Still, the process came one step at a time. In the summer of 1984, he went to work as a dispatcher for what was then the Terre Haute ISP Post, obtaining a spot in the agency’s recruit school a year later and graduating as a trooper Nov. 10, 1985. His first assignment was patrolling Vigo County, which he did until 1991, before transferring to the Parke and Vermillion counties patrol zones, where he served until 2000. That July, he was promoted to corporal and moved back to the Terre Haute area until 2003, when he was promoted to sergeant and made a public information officer, the spot he maintains today.

Along the way, Watts served as a Field Training Officer for 15 years and worked on the ISP SWAT team for a decade. He also served as a past instructor for the Emergency Vehicle Operations Course.

“Law enforcement, to me, is a calling,” he said, explaining people don’t just wake up one day and decide to become police officers. The drive to help people is one so ingrained in the personality that, even after 26 years, he still feels the pull to enter hostile environments and help people. No matter how bad the situation is, Watts said, he’s always felt “at home” being a police officer.

And that’s where he was, at home, 10 years ago on Sept. 11 when terrorists struck the nation. He had worked the midnight shift and was sitting at home when his wife called to tell him to turn on the television. Watching the footage of the planes striking the World Trade Center, he recalled the disbelief he initially felt. Later, he went down to a coffee shop and talked with other troopers. None of them could believe it, he recalled.

The dangers of public service are very real, he said. But police officers and other emergency responders know that. Wearing the uniform means risking your life.

In 1987, just two years into the job, Watts responded to the shooting death of Vigo County Sheriff Deputy Walter Kevin Artz. It was the first time he’d ever seen another police officer shot, and the impact resonated. He’d been friends with the Artz family and the incident hit close to home, he recalled.

In July of this year, the married father of two found himself involved in yet another officer death, as Terre Haute Police Department K-9 Officer Brent Long was killed while assisting with a warrant service.

Three times, Watts has spoken with, and tried to help, suicidal people. Three times they ended up killing themselves, he said.

Responding to automobile accidents involving children is always hard on officers, and one never really clocks out of the job.

Police officers are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And even when out of uniform, neighbors and friends know what you do, calling your home constantly for help or advice.

Working in law enforcement, one typically deals with people at their worst times, as victims of a crime or crash, and being vented upon or attacked is common, Watts said.

“Every day in your work shift, your emotions shift many, many times,” he said, explaining a trooper might be busy writing a report when summoned to the scene of a vehicle crash.

Then again, twice in his career Watts has received an award for saving a life. The first was for performing the Heimlich Maneuver on a choking woman, the second one for pulling an unconscious driver from a burning car. In 2010, he received the Walter Kevin Artz Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award given by the Terre Haute Breakfast Optimist Club, 13 years after attending the scene at which his friend was killed.

For young people interested in a law enforcement career, Watts said getting a good education is essential. About 80 percent of a police officer’s time is spent writing and reading reports, and literacy is key. Maintaining a clean driving and criminal record is also essential. But most important, he advises, seek the job as a way to help others and keep that the highest priority.