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Youths get early taste for life behind badge

Police Explorers, aspiring law enforcement officers, ages 14 to 21, simulate situations they can expect as officers: bomb threats and burglaries.

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 2, 2001


TAMPA -- Their friends tease them. Their parents worry about them.

Unlike many teenagers, their idea of a good time is learning how to handcuff a suspect or taking practice shots with a .38-caliber pistol. But the young men and women in local Police Explorers programs don't think they're any different from their peers.

"Everybody has something they want to do, and this is what we like to do," said 17-year-old Heather Silver, who holds the rank of major and leads the 19-member post sponsored by the St. Petersburg Police Department.

The Explorers program, which is affiliated with the Boy Scouts, is for youths between 14 and 21 who want to learn about law enforcement. Posts are sponsored by police departments, sheriff's offices and other law enforcement agencies.

More than 300 Explorers from around the state spent the past week in Tampa. They competed in events that simulate the real situations they can expect if they become law enforcement officers: bomb threats, burglaries in progress, domestic violence calls, crisis intervention and crime-scene investigation.

Getting into the program is difficult. Applicants must attend meetings, undergo background checks by school and law enforcement agencies and be interviewed by post members.

Those whose favorite form of fun is all-night raves aren't likely to get in.

Once accepted, Explorers meet weekly for training. They wear uniforms and duty belts equipped with police radios, handcuffs and rubber gloves. They learn how to pat down suspects, direct traffic and search buildings.

Most important, they learn whether they want a career in law enforcement.

Not all parents are thrilled by the prospect.

"At first, my mom said, 'Why that?' She didn't want me doing it," said Chase Seitz, 17, a corporal with the Tampa Police Department Explorers post.

"Most civilians have that mentality: 'He's going to get killed,' " said Officer Mike Simpson, post adviser.

In fact, he said, 214 officers nationwide lost their lives last year.

"We don't downplay it," he said. "It is a dangerous job."

The main focus of Explorer training is how to do the job safely.

One goal of most members is to achieve ride-along privileges with uniformed officers. This takes a lot of training in topics as diverse as firearms and infectious diseases.

What they see on those patrols is that life behind a badge is nothing like they've seen on television and in movies.

"It's not all Dirty Harry," said 20-year-old David Duff, a lieutenant with the Tampa Police Department post. "You realize they're human behind the badge."

"It's not like COPS, not all running and shooting," said Seitz. "A lot of it is sitting in the car, writing reports for hours."

- Linda Gibson can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or at lgibson@sptimes.com.

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