Posted on Thu, Jan. 12, 2006

Police defend Explorer program

Mercury News


Police Chief Ronald Levine ticked off the success stories: a lieutenant in Atheron, a captain in Morgan Hill, a police chief in Daly City and, of course, himself. All were members of the Explorers program, like the teenager who witnessed Saturday's deadly shooting of an East Palo Alto police officer.

Levine, who has run Explorer programs in two departments and is now chief of the Foothill-De Anza College District, worries that since the shooting, people are questioning whether the program, designed as an introduction to law enforcement careers, is too dangerous for teens.

``It's a knee-jerk reaction,'' said Levine, who has been contacting his fellow Explorer alumni and asking them to help defend the program, which has been in the news since the East Palo Alto slaying. In that shooting, a 16-year-old Explorer who was on a ride-along radioed for help after oficer Richard May was shot, then gave police a detailed description of the alleged killer. The teen later identified suspect Alberto Alvarez for police.

Many have praised the teen's clear head and quick thinking, while others worried that a teenager was in such a dangerous situation, just 20 yards from the shooting.

``It's entirely understandable, the reaction of both,'' said John Richers, chief executive the Pacific Skyline Council of the Boy Scouts of America, which administers the East Palo Alto program along with local police. ``I worry. But you want them to learn about the world they'll grow into.''

The killing prompted an Atherton police officer to ask Paulina Chognard, 17, if she was now too scared to go on ride-alongs, as she frequently has during her two years as an Explorer in Atherton.

Definitely not, said the Notre Dame High School student, who credits the Explorer program with teaching about her community, how to communicate better -- and how to shoot a gun.

``It's not just law enforcement skills,'' she said. ``It's life skills.''

Jim Bennett, spokesman for the Mountain View police department, agrees. He was an Explorer himself two decades ago and now advises the department's program.

``It is character-building, dealing with people from all walks of life, just as police officers do,'' Bennett said.

Explorers, who range from age 14 to 20, direct traffic, learn first aid and self-defense and help run community events such as toy and can drives.

They also go on ride-alongs and learn how to use the police radio.

There are 440 police Explorers in the Peninsula and South Bay alone, officials said. Across the country, Explorers number in the thousands. Officers try to balance teaching them about police work with protecting them from harm.

For instance, Explorers aren't allowed to join pursuits, drive marked patrol cars or make arrests. So for an Explorer to be caught in a dangerous spot like a shooting is ``a very rare occurrence,'' said Gregg Shields, a spokesman with the national Boy Scouts of America.

Still, the nature of police work means Explorers can find themselves in volatile situations. Christine Ticas, who was an Explorer for four years with the Daly City Police Department until she turned 21 in March, recalls one ride-along when a police officer pulled his gun to stop a scuffle between two armed fighters. No one was shot.

``Some days it's slow, some days it's not,'' said Ticas, who cooly assessed the East Palo Alto Explorer's response. ``That's what we're trained for.''

In the wake of Saturday's shooting, there are no plans to alter ride-alongs, which are a highlight of the program. Explorers in East Palo Alto must clock four hours of office work to earn a ride with one of the officers. Officers decide whether a call is too hot to take an Explorer along.

``Officers are well-trained here,'' officer Brian Frayer said. ``We work in a rougher community to begin with, and the officers know what the Explorers can do.''

Initially, the Explorers are passive passengers, he said. But as they gain more experience, they learn how to call in license plates or answer basic radio calls for the officer.

Given the nature of the city's crime rate, Explorers respond to a crime every time they're on a ride-along, Frayer said. All of the city's eight Explorers live or have lived in East Palo Alto.

``They're much safer, or just as safe, with the officer,'' he said, ``as they would be walking down one of our streets.''

Police are not releasing the name of the Explorer who was at Saturday's shooting. He still wants to be a police officer, Frayer said.

If he does carry a badge, he'll be following in the footsteps of Gary McLane, who was an Explorer from 1972 to 1975 and is now Daly City's police chief.

The program cemented McLane's desire to be a police officer -- he likens it more to a calling. ``I remember just being kinda overwhelmed by how seriously everybody took things and how badly everyone wanted to do a good job,'' he said.

He said the teenager's training paid off Saturday and the teen ``performed heroically.'' It's unrealistic, he noted, to expect the program to shield teenagers from all potential danger.

``I would ask people: What meaningful activity in any walk of life where there's no risk of harm?'' he said. ``You can never eliminate risk, but you manage it.''

Would you let your child participate in a police ride-along? Join the discussion.

Contact Kim Vo at or (650) 688-7571.

2006 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.