The terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 led to a renewed sense of patriotism and commitment to service among Americans, and the response wasn’t limited to adults.
That Sept. 11 was a defining moment in the life of a seventh-grade girl in Parma, Idaho, putting her on a path that would eventually lead Sarah Alam to Marion.
Alam joined Marion Police Department as its fourth full-time officer March 5, and she traces her career back to a commitment she made the day of the terrorist attacks.
“I woke up that morning and I put the news on, and it was when the first tower was hit. I was watching live as the second plane hit the second tower,” Alam said.
She went to school and watched the developing story with her seventh-grade social studies class.
“You know how seventh-graders are, nobody takes anything seriously. I just remember looking back at the class and it was silent. It was like everybody had this understanding, and I remember this silence,” Alam recalled.
“I had this urge all of a sudden that I had to serve my country somehow,” Alam said.
While it was a pivotal moment, it wasn’t the first time Alam had imagined such a life.
“Ever since I was little, when my girlfriends were playing Barbies, I was making little boot-camps in the back of my yard,” Alam said. “Military and law enforcement were my two dreams.”
As a high school senior, she enlisted in the National Guard military police, with the intention of pursuing a military career. A medical condition that disqualified her from continuing in the Guard forced her to take a different direction.
“I said, ‘If I can’t be a cop in the military, I’ll be a civilian police officer,’” Alam said. “I had no idea how I was going to do that, because you had to be 21, so I had a couple of years to kill.”
Alam took welding classes in high school which led to a job as a welder in LaGrande, Ore. She didn’t like welding, but the job unexpectedly advanced her law enforcement aspirations.
“My welding boss was a reserve officer for the sheriff’s office, and I told him I wanted to do some ride-alongs,” Alam said.
Her boss introduced Alam to Union County Senior Deputy Sheriff Jim Voelz, who ended up with bigger plans for Alam than just ride-alongs.
“He got a domestic violence grant and we created an injury documentation team, specializing in domestic violence and sexual assault,” Alam said. “I went through extensive advocacy training, and then forensic and crime scene and injury documentation photography.”
Alam had personal experience to complement her technical expertise.
“My growing up was in and out of foster care, so I knew the other side of it. I grew up that way, and I think that’s why he selected me, because of my personal insight,” Alam said.
The grant expired after two years, and Alam decided she was ready to test waters far from home, moving to Texas in January 2011. She didn’t land a law enforcement position, but did put her background to use.
“I worked a security job, but wasn’t really happy,” Alam said.
Alam said she was visiting family friends in Marion in February when on the day she was to leave she found out about the vacancy with the police department.
“I heard that day they were hiring, and I thought ‘What would it hurt?’” Alam said. “I love small towns. I grew up in a small town.”
Alam was one of 12 applicants interviewed by Chief of Police Tyler Mermis and patrol officers Clinton Jeffrey and Brad Cady. Alam’s experience made her the clear choice, Jeffrey said.
“She’s as qualified as you can be without having gone to the academy,” Jeffrey said. “She was everything we pictured in an officer, plus she was a female, which was a bonus that made it that much better.”
Alam’s experience with domestic violence, forensic documentation and photography, and interest in working with children fit well with areas the department wanted to enhance, Jeffrey said.
“Having a female in the department offers diversity because there are situations that come up that will be uncomfortable for the guys,” Jeffrey said.
Mermis said traumatized children frequently relate more readily to women, which benefits both the children and investigations.
“The 12 years I’ve been doing this, you can have a male officer go in and talk to a child about something, and then have a female officer go back into that same room with the same child and get more information and more detail than the male officer did,” Mermis said.
Alam has the same authority as any other officer, but the department has an orientation plan that will have her shadowing her colleagues through early April. She will be familiarizing herself with department policies and procedures, local ordinances and state laws, and getting acquainted with her new home.
Alam will attend Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center in Hutchinson full-time from May to August, and she is restricted by state regulations from regular duty during that time.
Jeffrey said they are looking forward to August when Alam is fully certified, as she will provide both valuable services and necessary support for increased case loads.
“We’re already 50 cases ahead of where we were last year at this time,” Jeffrey said. “The summer is usually our busiest time.”
One aspect of the job Alam especially likes is the opportunity for more varied contact with the public.
“I feel like I’ll be able to be in the community a lot more than in a large city where you’re just going from call to call,” Alam said.