Teenagers, numbering about 30 strong, wearing button-down, powder-blue shirts and navy-blue slacks, stand at attention, arms at their sides, eyes focused forward.
The squad is impeccably aligned in rows as two post leaders wind their way through the formation, perusing each individual from head to toe.
If even the slightest element of their uniform is out of place, or an incorrect response to a question is given, the members of the squad drop and commence doing pushups.
Military boot camp?
It’s the weekly meeting of the Garden Grove Police Department Explorers Post 1020.
GGPD’s first Explorer Academy was held in 1974 and continues to grow in popularity.
Ranging in age from 14 to 21, GGPD explorers get a glimpse of what the rigorous path toward becoming a police officer is like.
“We take a lot of pride in our post and make sure everybody is squared away and all their Ts are crossed and Is are dotted,” said Sgt. Richard Burillo, the lead advisor of Explorer Post 1020. “We are already molding them so they know a little about what to expect when they go to the [police]academy, because it will be similar to what they go through in our program.”
Military-style drills and regular inspections acclimate explorers to perform well under pressure and help foster discipline and self-confidence, Burillo said.
Explorers also learn fighting techniques, criminal law, conducting car stops, first aid, team work and physical fitness.
Post 1020 has captured a hefty share of hardware from explorer competitions, where they go head-to-head with posts from other agencies.
The post took home three trophies from a 60-team competition in Chandler, Az. in January and won seven plaques in a competition at the Orange County Sheriff’s Training Academy in 2016.
The competitions feature drills and mock scenarios designed to mimic real-life police situations, such as active shooters, car stops and domestic violence calls.
“We have taken the skills they have taught us,” GGPD explorer Daniel Alvarez said. “We just focus when we go there. We execute as a team.”
Collectively, Post 1020 racks up about 8,100 volunteer hours in a year, Burillo said, helping with crowd control at parades, festivals and other city-sponsored events, and assisting during DUI checkpoints.
Many explorers do additional community service on their own time, he said.
Prospective explorers must get through a stringent application process, attend three post meetings and pass an oral interview, followed by a demanding four-day Explorer Academy that includes physical fitness tests and classroom instruction.
“The Explorer Academy is tough,” said Alvarez, 19, a member of the post for five years. “It’s fun, though. You learn a lot. You learn the importance of teamwork and the importance of communication.”
Alvarez, a student at Santa Ana College, became an explorer because he is interested in a law enforcement career.
He’s loved it from the beginning.
“I used to be really shy,” he said. “I’m much more confident. We’re really blessed to have advisors that really care about us. It starts with them. They have taught us and trained us.”
Explorer Tanner de Padua, 18, recalled being bullied in middle school.
He never participated in sports.
Then he became an explorer.
“This gave me a chance to be part of a team,” said de Padua, a member of Post 1020 for three years. “And going to competitions with these guys has really been a cool experience and given me the opportunity to see what being part of a team is like.”
De Padua is on the path to becoming a police cadet, a precursor to becoming a sworn officer.
GGPD Officer Vanessa Brodeur, one of seven explorers’ advisors, said watching the youngsters gain maturity over time is what’s most rewarding.
“They are thanking you and asking questions,” Brodeur said. “It’s rewarding because I get to pass on some of my knowledge.”
But not all explorers are interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement, and that is perfectly OK, Burillo said.
When explorers move on to their next endeavor, they’ll be equipped for success.
“Even if they don’t want to be police officers, once you go through this program, you can [accomplish almost]anything in life,” the sergeant said.