Imagine fidgeting anxiously in a patrol car, sitting next to a police officer, speeding toward a scene where a burglary or shooting has just taken place. That's just what Modesto Police Explorers experience.
No, they don't ride in the back seat as criminals.
Police Explorers is a program that gives 16- to 21-year-olds an idea of what it's like to have a law enforcement career. It also gives participants community service hours that meet high school graduation requirements.
Now, you may be thinking, "But I don't want to be a police officer, I want to be a doctor!"
Explorers "don't have to be 100 percent decided they are going to be in law enforcement," said officer Daniel Starr, a program adviser. "It isn't just for those who want to become officers. We welcome everyone."
Added officer Gillian Christensen, another program adviser: "There are several who aren't interested in law enforcement, they are in it for leadership and because it looks great on résumés."
Randy Van Diemen, a 17-year-old senior at Central Catholic High School, joined the program to gain qualities to help him make his dream of becoming a police officer a reality. "All my life, I've wanted to go into law enforcement, and I knew the program would be a great opportunity to get experience and knowledge."
Ashley Kennedy, 19, has been involved with Modesto Police Explorers since she was 15. "I have always found the law enforcement field to be pretty cool. I wanted to see what it was all about and see if it was something I wanted to put my time and effort into."
Starr believes the program is beneficial to teens not only in their career paths but in life in general. "It teaches them leadership, supervisory skills, responsibility, deadlines and camaraderie. They get to see what the work field is like and gain a knowledge about law enforcement. The public doesn't always understand why we do what we do; being an Explorer lets them see how and why we do things."
Christensen agreed with Starr about the life lessons teens take from the program. "Some of the members have never had a job before. This program teaches them how to be professional and how to work. They get to see every aspect of law enforcement.
"They see more than what people see on TV, and I think they take that with them to college and in their career. They also learn how not to be a criminal."
Van Diemen knows firsthand the benefits of the program. "It lets me know what to expect and what's really out there, so I won't be shocked when I do hopefully become a police officer," he said. "I'll have a huge advantage when I go to a police academy because I'll already know quite a bit of the basics."
The "main event" for Explorers is the ride-along, in which they get to accompany full-time officers when they ride out to answer calls.
"They are observers, basically just like a civilian," Christensen said. "We might let them fill out a tow sheet, a citation, use the radio to call another officer, or direct traffic. They can't speak to witnesses; they basically do the busy work for us."
The ride-along is "where you learn the basic of policing such as officer safety, tactics and paperwork," Van Diemen said.
Before being able to ride along, a teen must pass the "10 code," meaning be well versed in the specific codes the officers use over the radio. Once learning the "10 code" an Explorer is required to put in 11 hours of ride-alongs and patrol shifts per month, which also counts as community service.
The program holds a minimum of two meetings per month, at which officers give specialized training to the teens, giving them an exclusive inside look at what the various branches of law enforcement do. The meetings consists of uniform checks, going over activity details and deciding what events to participate in around town, such as working security at parades. The Explorers are put through CPR training and receive instruction on building searches and how to complete paperwork.
So, how does one become a Police Explorer?
"First, fill out an application, which you can get from the Police Department lobby or by calling, schedule an interview and then go to the background stage, where investigators check their background. The teens hear and see things we wouldn't want everybody to hear and see," said Starr.
Explorers also must dedicate a minimum of 22 hours of volunteer time a month to the department.
The point of the interview portion is so program leaders can see if the applicant has high morals that correspond with the law. "You have to have very high standards to be a part of the Modesto Police Explorers," said Explorer adviser Sgt. Dan Shrader.
Being an Explorer does not secure a position as a police officer. "There are no promises, but a large portion of this department has previously been Explorers for this department or others," said Starr. "It assists you in determining if law enforcement is really for you or not; some realize this isn't the career they're interested in being in. I was an Explorer for the Chico Police Department, and there's no doubt in my mind that it helped me get through the background check. I knew what was expected of me as a police officer."
Christensen believes the program is beneficial to teens in the long run because they have "already been there, they know people and know how to be more prepared than someone who hasn't been an Explorer. They know radio codes and are more prepared for it than a normal person right out of the academy."
Definitely not "all work and no play," the Modesto Police Explorers program is a place where young adults can go to live out their passion as well as learn the skills and gain the experience necessary to succeed in any career.
"It's been tough but worth it," said Kennedy.
"There are rules and the program is sometimes rigid, but for the most part, it's about learning and having fun," Shrader added.
Interested in becoming a Police Explorer? Now's your chance. The Police Explorer POST is accepting applications and wants to add about 15 Explorers this summer.
Contact officer Gillian Christensen at 652-1581.
Emily Shrader is a sophomore at Enochs High School and a member of The Bee's Teens in the Newsroom journalism program.