It’s not an after-school hobby or a casual extracurricular activity.
To be a part of the Westminster Police Explorer Program there’s a strict vetting process, and just like sworn officers, there also is an academy.
Fail to pass the academy, fail to earn a spot in Westminster PD’s post.
“We want to see a commitment,” said advisor Det. Paul Walker. “An explorer is someone who is self-motivated, who has the desire to serve others before themselves and someone who already has a moral sense of right and wrong.”
An explorer is also someone who is OK with getting yelled at, enduring pepper spray and getting jostled awake at 3 a.m. to hit the floor for pushups. (And yes, their parents sign an extremely thick packet approving all of these things.)
Such was life for 12 of Westminster PD’s Explorers at the five-day Police Explorer Academy in February at Irvine Regional Park.
“They have no access to technology — no cell phones, no social media,” Walker said. “For many, this is their first time away from their parents and it’s the toughest thing they’ve experienced in their lives.”
Nearly 160 teens and young adults from across Orange County participated in the academy, which is modeled after the exponentially more intense police academy.
The week started with 158 potential explorers, but only 130 graduated.
“You have to really want to do this,” said Westminster PD Explorer Lizbeth Sanchez, 17. “People either quit because of medical reasons or because they just couldn’t take it.”
Westminster’s Explorers brought home three awards — Sanchez won 5th place for notebook and Explorer Benjamin Pham won 2nd in notebook and 5th in written exam, which is a cumulative test of the academy courses.
The students are required to learn about various facets of law enforcement including gangs, domestic violence, narcotics and SWAT, among other subjects.
Each explorer also experienced what pepper spray in the eyes and nose feels like, how to handle sleep deprivation and how to overcome sore muscles during physical fitness training.
“Waking up in the middle of the night twice was the hardest,” Pham said. “They make you run all the way down to this lower area, do physical training, then run back up.”
Those who completed the course, were awarded with an Explorer uniform.
“I tell my friends about this academy, but nobody really gets it,” said Explorer Nathan Panella, 15. “You don’t get it unless you’re there. It is super tough, but the sense of pride when you finish is really cool.”
The acceptance process to become an Explorer is tough because the work they do is important.
Explorers work various community events and serve as a liaisons for the department. They also run traffic control, fingerprint young children and help in whatever capacity the department needs.
There are currently about 30 explorers in Westminster’s post and in 2015 they volunteered more than 8,500 hours, Walker said.
They worked events including the Orange County Marathon, the Tet Festival, the Special Olympics Torch Run and Shop with a Cop, among others.
“These kids are up at 3:30 in the morning, putting their uniforms on and going somewhere in Orange County to stand at a post,” Walker said. “And they do it for a slice of pizza.”
While lunch may be a token incentive, the teens and young adults volunteer hundreds of hours because they have a sharp focus on their future.
For many, that means a career in law enforcement.
Sanchez wants to one day be a cop with Westminster PD, while Pham hopes to pursue a career at the federal law enforcement level.
Panella, whose father is a commander with Westminster PD, said he sees the explorer Post as a great way to prepare for the academy and a career in the field he already loves.
“You get constant action and get to chase bad guys and all that, but you also serve your community, help people and save lives,” he said. “I think that’s just really cool.”
Interested in becoming an Explorer?
- Explorers meet at 6:30 p.m. the first and third Tuesday of every month.
- Explorers must be age 14 to 21 with a good academic standing.
- A written application and an interview are required for consideration, along with a background check for past delinquency.
- Those interested should call Det. Walker at 898-3315, ext. 3836.
- Visit the city’s website or wpdexplorers801.wix.com for more information.