“Hi there, how are you doing?” asks Clark College campus security officer Eben Ayers as he strides toward two men leaning against traveling backpacks, the fabric of the packs worn and the men’s faces weary. They were resting between the fencing of the soccer field and bushes that line the purple parking lot on a recent Friday about 9 p.m.
The men say are were from Eugene, Ore., and are trekking toward Port Angeles, where they had heard of a job harvesting dahlias. They planned to earn enough to buy a school bus and amass a group of people to travel, while planting and growing food.
“Well, I’m a gardener myself,” Ayers says with a grin, striking up a conversation.
“I told myself a long time ago that I’m not an adult until I can feed myself,” says the man sitting closest to Ayers, Peter Grotticelli.
After minutes of chatting and roaring laughter, Ayers tells the two that though the campus closed at 6 p.m., they were free to rest in an open place where he could ensure their safety.
“You have to balance safety with people’s attitudes, really … if they are cooperative and polite and peaceful, then there’s no reason they can’t just sit on a bench and hang out for a bit,” Ayers tells an Indy reporter and photographer.
This is the life of a campus security officer after dark, when all the students are gone yet the 101-acre property in the Central Park neighborhood of Vancouver still needs monitoring.
Aside from interacting with transients, officers working the night shift patrol the campus to check buildings for locked doors and provide escorts for students walking to their cars after a late-night class. It’s also their responsibility to rid Clark of people who are doing drugs, sleeping in their cars or using parked vehicles for romantic trysts.
Ayers said officers strive to handle these situations “as delicately as possible.”
Ayers works from 2 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday. “I have to give up some time on my Friday evenings, right. I want to be home with my family, but because I was hired last, I get the least desirable shift,” he said.
It doesn’t really bother him, Ayers said. “I love the job. I love the campus,” he said. “I would take any shift.”
During the night hours, Ayers follows a more prescriptive procedure. During the day, it’s all about the students, he said. Those duties include retrieving keys from locked classrooms, restarting engines, opening doors for professors who have misplaced their keys and giving directions to those who have lost their way.
“You never know what’s going to happen next,” Ayers said. “We could get a call for somebody who’s had a car accident, or you could have a medical call. We respond to those.”
Mike See, Clark’s director of security and safety, said, “We always have at least one person here 24/7, seven days a week.”
He said there are usually two or three officers on main campus. Of the 17 officers on staff, four work night shifts, including Ayers.
Ayers has been a security officer at Clark for seven years, five while working full time.
As a teen, Ayers said, he wanted to be a police officer. In his junior year of high school, he attended the Clark County Skills Center, where he often went to the courthouse to observe cases. His senior year he began interning in Clark’s security department.
A few years after graduating high school, Ayers returned to Clark as a part-time parking enforcement officer and part-time electrician. Later came a full-time position as an officer.
“Some things just kept pulling me back here to Clark throughout the years in one capacity or another,” Ayers said.
His boss, See, looks not only for integrity in new officers, but for experience in the military, criminal justice or security training, as Ayers has.
“I look for people that have well-developed customer service skills,” See said. “That’s a big part of what we do here. We serve the college community.”
One report Ayers said he remembers exemplifies his work. He was responding to a call about a man who was yelling at the softball coach and his players. By the time Ayers arrived, the man was quietly sitting in the grass.
“We just had a discussion, and I ended up finding out that he was depressed and he was contemplating suicide,” Ayers said. “I asked his permission if I could call an ambulance for him.”
Those, Ayers said, are the calls that matter, “where we get to help somebody.”
The most common issue on campus during the night is after-hour visitors. Ayers said it’s hard to tell if the person unlawfully passing through campus is threatening or not.
“There’s some people that are up to no good, and some people that are just here to smell the flowers,” Ayers said.
In early August, a house on East Reserve Street, across from Joan Stout Hall, was engulfed in flames. After the occupant found safety on campus with her three dogs, Ayers spoke with the woman and tried to assess her well-being. He ended up calling an ambulance for her.
“We’re in the middle of a community, and if a neighbor in our community needs help, we get to help them,” Ayers said.
Ayers said his role comes down to keeping Clark a place where students can pursue their education without worry. But he said it’s also about showing compassion to everyone, like he did with the two travelers who were actually trespassing.
Ayers said he most treasures how being a security officer introduces him to people from all walks of life.
“Maybe seven or eight years ago, maybe I wouldn’t have approached those two gentlemen the same way. It might have been a different situation,” Ayers said.
“It’s kind of taught me a lot about how to interact with people that just aren’t the same as me.”
Ainslie Cromar is a reporter for The Independent, Clark College’s student newspaper. This story was written as part of a collaboration with The Columbian called Voices From Clark College. It was also published in The Independent.