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The suspect, wanted on outstanding warrants, was hiding the gun in his waistband. The arresting officers recovered it without incident. Unbeknownst to them, however, he had also palmed a handcuff key and was quietly scratching away, desperate for freedom.
This scenario played out at the Forest Park Police CID offices on Tuesday, Nov. 27. The suspect was a juvenile — and so were the officers. It was a class exercise for the Explorers, 14-21 years of age, with an interest in law enforcement. The young police hopefuls learn from actual, adult officers who, every other Tuesday evening, volunteer their time to share a wealth of experience and knowledge.
The program is offered under the auspices of the Boy Scouts of America but is open to any area boy or girl providing they have a genuine interest in law enforcement, maintain at least a "B-" grade average — Police Chief Jim Ryan will ask to see your report card every semester — and have not had any previous run-ins with the police that found them on the handcuffed-side of the law.
Detective Scott Frey was instrumental in bringing Explorers to Forest Park two years ago. Auxiliary Officer Chris Dempsey presided over last Tuesday's class, bolstered by the active input and participation of Officer Karl Solms and Detective Mike O'Connor.
Students learned how to approach a subject — the thought processes, warning signs and the rules police must be aware of in situations like the simulated arrest above.
"The instructors are great, they give a lot of insight to what really goes on, and they hand-to-hand teach you what you need to do and how to become a good officer," said student Karl Koch, who is currently pursuing a degree in criminal justice from Triton College. "Growing up, I've always been interested, wondered what the police really do, and [Explorers] gives you a good insight of how the department works and operates, so I think it's a great program."
Detective O'Connor said of Koch, "Whatever department hires him is going to get their money's worth. He's a go-getter. ... But that's the kind of people we look for [in Explorers]."
It isn't unrealistic for Koch and other students to dream of applying these classroom scenarios to the real world when they become cops. Two of their instructors, Dempsey and Solms, both participated in police Explorers programs when they were growing up.
Solms said the program stripped away misconceptions and let him see police officers as real people and also as public servants. Service has always been a cornerstone of the Boy Scouts and the same is true for Explorers.
"Fundamentally, it's the same principles as scouting," Solms said. "It's taking good young people and making them better."
These principles stretch beyond simulating police work. Service projects in which the Explorers will be participating include a partnership with local churches to assist elderly and disabled people with home repair projects. The Explorers also volunteer their time one Saturday afternoon, and if the assisted person wished to make a small donation to the program, it would be accepted, but not asked for.
Come spring, the group will clean and plant flags at distressed military graves in Forest Home Cemetery. They will also research and learn about the soldiers buried there.
"I like that sense of the tradition and the honor," Solms said. "This is reality. This is who is in your town, living or dead."
Chief Ryan encourages the Explorers to be active and in uniform (in a safe, support-services capacity) during Forest Park events, such as last year's Fourth of July. The fireworks will be cancelled in 2013, but the Explorers may still participate in other park district family events.
"As a group, we do a lot of charity things," said Solms' son, Connor, a 16-year-old who has been an Explorer for two years, and hopes to one day become an investigator. "And it's cool to get to know the cops in the area on a personal level."
Connor is getting a matter-of-fact introduction to the world of police work. The goal of Explorers isn't to be a recruiting tool but rather, as O'Connor puts it, "a pre-internship" where the students also gain an understanding of the voluminous paperwork aspects of the job, the safety risks and stress levels involved.
He continued, "I also try to impart [that] when you're representing a municipality or a police department, you need to step it up a notch; you need to hold yourself to a higher standard because everybody else does, which is why we want them to be getting good grades. We insist they have no [previous] contact with the police because we want moral character as well, and a sense of ethics."
Special guests visit from other law enforcement disciplines and agencies, discussing topics from arson investigations to ATF. Whatever the topic, the core of the curriculum, according to Dempsey, is to train the students for "anything that they might see as an officer on the street. We train them in here, so it really gives them an insight of what we do, and they see if they really want to go into this field.
"There's a lot of unknowns with law enforcement and this is a great program for kids to see what is really going on," Dempsey said.