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Posted by on January 14, 2011.

Young Explorers look and act the part of police officers

By Maggie Lee

Police Explorers Ayric Westfall and Juan Lopez apprehend a “suspect,” seen reflected in the window. The Explorers carry blue plastic “guns” as part of their gear.

It’s dark on the vacant top floor of a Dunwoody office building, where two teenagers are silently creeping down the hall, slipping between the building’s shadows and dimly lit security lights.

Slowly, they case every room along the hall. Suddenly, a loud voice of authority booms, “Okay, that’s enough.” A large figure steps into a doorway as the overhead lights blink to life.

The teens aren’t hooligans; they’re just the opposite, in fact. They’re members of a local Police Explorers program.

And despite appearances, they weren’t casing the office. They were learning to clear a building, just like professional officers.

Though Police Explorers groups are relatively new in the South, around the country they’re more prominent. The program is roughly analogous to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, except Police Explorers are geared toward young people who want to study the ways of law enforcement.

The Dunwoody Explorer post is only as old as the police department, which has been operating for nearly two years.

DeKalb County Fire and Rescue also operates an Explorer post. And Sandy Springs, for its part, is recruiting Explorers now with an aim to start a post in a few months.

The Police Explorers are open to youth from 14 to 21. They must pass an interview and background check. It’s not necessary to live in a certain jurisdiction to take part in the Sandy Springs or Dunwoody Explorers program. Interested participants should contact the departments.

Officers say the Explorer program is not necessarily about molding future police officers but mentoring future leaders.

“Our goal is not to make police officers,” says Furman. “Our goal is to make CEOs, CFOs, leaders.”

At the Dunwoody office building, two officers stand in the light at the end of a hall, surrounded by seven Explorers.

Officers William Furman and Fidel Espinoza stop the exercise and ask the seven youngsters to critique their peers: How are they holding their flashlights? Are they staying out of the line of fire? Are they quiet enough?

Police Explorers take their assignments seriously. “Our goal is not to make police officers,” says Dunwoody Police Officer William Furman. “Our goal is to make CEOs, CFOs, leaders.”

That’s what Police Explorers do: spend time learning how the police work in dangerous situations. They practice anything from hostage situations to felony traffic stops to domestic disputes.

The Explorers even look the part of law enforcement. They are decked out in matching grey-and-black uniforms, boots, and belts weighed down with a flashlight and a would-be firearm, which is actually a hunk of plastic in the shape of a gun.

Outside regular meetings they do more than practice police work. However it’s more basic. Explorers help man roadblocks, and practice crowd control at big public events.

The best, they say, is “going code,” which is police lingo for turning on the lights and sirens to speed to an emergency.

Explorers Max Gluck and Zach Woodburn, a lieutenant and a captain respectively, seem far more poised and mature than the average high school senior. They work as Explorers 12 to 15 hours a week.

They both grin like young folks when they talk about getting a real police call when they’re doing a shift with a Dunwoody officer.

“It was a weird feeling … intense, guns drawn,” says Gluck, describing the time his unit got called to a house alarm. He watched as the officers jumped from their cars, approached the building alert and then covered each other, just as Explorers learn. The officers “knew exactly what they had to do,” instinctually, Gluck said.

Woodburn got to experience a call in response to a brawl at an apartment. “I don’t want to say how fast we were driving,” he said, with a smile. A bunch of police units pulled up at once and officers went into action. Just seeing a call like that pumps you full of adrenalin, Woodburn said.

Though Explorer exercises are straight from a police academy, the lessons are life skills like leadership, time management, running an organization and public speaking.

During the meeting, one Explorer suggests the group take a day trip – which would be part fun and part team building – rafting in North Georgia. Furman said the idea sounded good and then directed Explorers to coordinate the logistics of the trip themselves if they want the outing.

Back at the training site in the office building, the Explorers divide into three teams and practice how to safely apprehend another Explorer, who plays a suspect. The Explorers use their own law enforcement voices, commanding the suspect to “get on the ground! Raise your hands!”

Between training exercises, there’s a little fiddling around and debate about the best – and worst – police TV shows. “Cops” and “Police Women of Dallas” earn their respect, but shows with actors usually get it laughably wrong, they said.

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