“I’m sorry, but I have to inform you that your husband is dead,” Josh Sticht announced to the newlywed dental student on the other side of the threshold. It was 4 a.m. when Sticht delivered the heartbreaking news that her husband was never coming back.
If someone told Sticht, a former Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) illustration major, that he would one night be delivering his very first death notice as a law enforcement officer, he would have written them off as crazy. At the time for this budding and passionate fine arts student, the idea of law enforcement seemed unfathomable altogether.
In high school, Sticht could hardly contain his excitement when the fine arts program brought students to New York City to see artists at work in the studio. Back then, Sticht saw an education in the fine arts as the only path forward.
“I really felt like it was gonna be my life,” Sticht said.
Sticht began studying illustration at RIT and picked up a work-study job with RIT’s Campus Safety Department to help pay for his room and board. He locked academic buildings at night, making rounds throughout the campus. It was not an enforcement role by any means.
But Sticht says because RIT was heavily understaffed at the time, he and other students found themselves taking on the jobs that would typically be assigned to full-time employees. Sticht and his peers augmented dispatch services, answering emergency calls.
“I got to the point where I was actually getting more satisfaction out of my work-study job than I was out of my major,” Sticht said. “I didn’t stop. I finished my degree but then the work I was doing with the Campus Safety Department there, it was a lot more interesting to me.”
After earning his illustration degree, Sticht started an unfulfilling and creatively stifling career in graphic design in 1992. He primarily designed simple, eye-catching and readable websites for commercial clients ranging from attorneys to real estate firms.
One client in particular gave Sticht the strength he needed to make a major shift in his life.
A realtor in the Rochester area needed a webpage made and envisioned a dark green, malachite marble with dark text —– a completely illegible combination.
Frustrated with the client’s stubbornness and insistence on this ill-fated artistic direction, Sticht spent hours finding a way to use the realtor’s desired elements while also keeping the site readable.
It didn’t matter in the end. His client changed it all back.
“That was the moment,” Sticht said. “That was the moment that I decided that this career is not going to work for me.”
After escaping from a creatively-repressed and unsatisfactory graphic design career, Sticht became a public safety officer at the University of Rochester.
Eight years later, Sticht moved back to Buffalo, his hometown, to become a university police officer at UB.
He’d gotten lucky. New York State University Police happened to be offering the civil service exam, and UB happened to have a position open, allowing Sticht to reunite with the city that raised him.
“I really had an opportunity to help — help college students go through mental health crises, have a positive impact on the community,” Sticht said. “I really felt like I found home once I started at UB.”
In the Erie County Police Academy, where most of UB’s hires are trained, Sticht worked closely with his instructors, many of whom were also UPD officers. He cherishes the opportunity he had to learn from the people he would ultimately work with after graduating from the academy.
“I had never driven a police car before coming to the academy. I was having a little bit of an issue with the skills course,” Sticht recalled. “One of the officers from UB was an instructor who was able to basically work with me and help me be successful getting through that. It wasn't just, ‘You have to do this on your own and if you fail, you fail.’”
That support propelled Sticht to the FBI Academy at Quantico’s 234th session. He describes that experience as the “pinnacle of his professional career.”
Sticht worked with officers from incredibly diverse backgrounds, including law enforcement from Canada, France, Denmark, Ukraine and Japan. Working with such talented officers intimidated Sticht. He suffered bouts of imposter syndrome sitting in classes with the other officers. One student, an officer from Oklahoma and Sticht’s roommate, had killed someone in the line of duty.
“I [wondered], ‘What am I doing here?’” Sticht said. “I’m a police officer at a university, and yeah, I deal with really serious stuff, but… why am I here?”
The FBI Academy opened doors for Sticht. He credits this experience as one of the opportunities that made his ascent to deputy chief possible. Unfortunately, that training also led him to a young woman’s doorstep on the night of a massively traumatic loss.
A UB dental student and her husband, newly married, were moving from New Jersey into her apartment for the upcoming semester. Once he had helped her unpack, he returned to New Jersey to finish packing up their previous apartment. On the way back, he died in a fatal car crash.
By the time Sticht arrived at the widow’s door in the middle of the night with Father Pat, the Newman Center priest and police department chaplain, he braced himself to “tell someone the worst news you can possibly imagine about a loved one.”
“She disintegrated,” Sticht said. “Until you actually do it, you don’t expect how horrible it’s actually going to be to tell somebody that.”
The widow couldn’t even stand.
She never wanted to see Sticht again, a decision which Sticht respected whole-heartedly.
Sticht discreetly followed her educational journey as she eventually returned to UB’s dental school, checking in every once in a while through contacts in the department, always careful to remain further than an arm’s length away.
Sticht’s experience at UB is not solely defined by doom and gloom — although that is part of his job. He’s seen his fair share of tragic and unforgettable nights, but Sticht has also been able to meet several notable figures through his career, including former President Barack Obama, actor and former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vice President Kamala Harris and even the Dalai Lama.
Sticht recalls moments of both tension and levity from the aforementioned exiled head of state’s weeklong visit to UB in 2006.
The Dalai Lama planned a private meeting with Chinese students, insisting that no law enforcement be present as a sign of good faith. Sticht remembers escorting the Dalai Lama and his entourage to the meeting location in Slee Hall, when suddenly the elevator broke down. The elevator doors closed, clanging and grinding noises reverberated through the enclosed space, the elevator remained motionless, then finally, the doors opened back up.
“The Dalai Lama looks around and just starts laughing,” Sticht said. “He was so amused by the whole situation, the rest of us just started laughing too.”
Even after all these years, the fine arts student within him finds a creative outlet: the UPD social media pages. Although exercising some of his graphic design skills on UPD’s Twitter or Instagram is a way of feeding his artistic side, it certainly does not represent the involvement in the arts that Sticht once pictured for himself as an RIT illustration major decades ago.
“I had a whole different idea about what I was going to be doing,” Sticht said. “You know, I liked the arts scene. I liked going to galleries, going to visit other artists in their studios. That felt like home, that felt comfortable to me as I was starting my college education. I don’t think I would’ve believed that this is where I would have wound up.”
Alex Novak is an assistant arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Alex Novak is a senior arts editor at The Spectrum.