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Galt Police Explorer program has a record of turning out homegrown officers

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Dan Evans/News-Sentinel

Oscar German, 20, left, a member of the Galt Police Department Explorers program, searches for his license as Logan Aguirre, 15, right, also an Explorer, performs a mock traffic stop at the department on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013.

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A dozen people in police uniforms stand at attention when their leaders walk into the briefing room.

Their navy blue pants and light blue button-downs are pressed crisp, and their badges shine proudly on their chests. They each wear a formal brass nametag with their first initial and last name.

But these are not police officers. They are students ranging in age from 14 to 20, who attend weekly classes in the Galt Police Department's Explorer program, known officially as Post No. 273.

In this room, instructors Officer Dan Carter and Detective Richard Small are helping to grow their own future officers through a program revamped earlier this year.

The curriculum is in line with what is taught at the California Police Officers Academy and at Sierra College, where Lt. Brian Vizzusi teaches. He wanted to get away from the former Explorer program format, where participants met only a couple of times a month and had a special speaker here and there.

Instead, the students spend half of the two-hour class taking notes and participating in small groups while following along with instructors giving a PowerPoint presentation. After a short break, the group typically heads outside for a hands-on tactical scenario.

"It's all about giving them an opportunity to learn," Sgt. Jerry Stoffel said. "That's what it's all about, exploring careers in law enforcement. Some want to be officers, others are going into dispatch."

The program allows the police department to grow its own officers, as evidenced by the fact that Stoffel already knows which students will be enrolling in the academy.

The program restarted a year ago last month with 27 students, but some have been lost to the military or the workforce, according to Stoffel, who helps to oversee each Explorer meeting.

"It happens all the time. We teach them everything we know, and then they go on," Stoffel said.

He said they weeded out students who were not taking the class seriously or joined for ulterior motives, such as to find a boyfriend or girlfriend. Most of the students are Galt residents, although one commutes from Roseville.

Weekly classes

The class is down to 14, although there is space for six more students. Each applicant must agree to a background check, have a valid California driver's license, submit a school report card, and have a clean arrest record.

There is a three-month probationary period. After that, they are held accountable and must check in beforehand if they are going to miss a class.

Lupe Alonso and Mariana Lopez enrolled two years ago after seeing a participant in uniform at school when they were sophomores. They are both Galt residents and are currently attending California State University, Sacramento.

"I wanted to see what it was like," Lopez said during a recent class. "There's a lot to this job."

When she first started, she wanted to be a dispatcher and then looked at becoming a detective. Now she's undecided — unlike Alonso, who knows she wants to work with youths as a counselor or parole agent.

"I feel like it's better to catch them young," Lopez said.

Not only has being in this program already connected her to the city's youths, but it has also brought out confidence she felt she was lacking. Her favorite part is being challenged to speak in front of the class.

"I've gotten public speaking and leadership skills here," Lopez said.

The class meets once a week on Wednesdays. Their teachers are off-duty Galt police employees.

Students, who cross-train with the Elk Grove Police Department, have regular group discussions — and sometimes they can get heated when it comes to understanding penal codes.

They learn drills, and when they go outside for hands-on tactical training, they practice with walkie-talkies — not police radios, as they are expensive, Small said.

But the program teaches more than just police officer technique, according to participants.

"I've always liked connecting with the community and helping people out," Alonso said.

Being an Explorer allows her to don a uniform and do just that, from directing traffic at the recent Light the Night event to helping sort toys for the needy, and distributing fliers at a DUI checkpoint.

Fellow classmate Logan Aguirre, 15, whose father is a police officer, has been in the program for less than two months. But in that time, he's been taught about some of the key elements of a law enforcement career, he said.

"I learned a lot, like how to do a drill, robbery and vehicle pull-overs. I like doing the live scenarios the best," he said.

Aguirre already knows he wants to be an officer.

Exploring career opportunities

Participants are expected to wear a uniform to each class. Some were purchased in the past by the department and handed down when explorers move on. Recently students have been required to purchase their own, according to Stoffel, who oversees the program and its finances.

Explorers hold a number of fundraisers to purchase things such as nametags and badges, which run $6 each. Students must purchase their own shoes.

Lodi Police Officer Nick Welton, who graduated from Galt's program in 1991, would encourage any young person interested in law enforcement to be an Explorer.

"This often dictates if the person is cut out for the job," he said. "Being an Explorer was an important part of me becoming a police officer. It allows for exposure to the elements and prepares a person for what to expect when dealing with different situations. A head start in any career is a plus, especially in the law enforcement field."

Vizzusi said Chief William Bowen is a staunch supporter of the Explorers, especially as other departments are scrapping similar programs, likely due to cost and commitment. Lodi currently has 16 Explorers in its own program, with room for a total of 20. Like Galt's, the participant age range is 16 to 24 years old.

Sponsoring an Explorers unit is also an effective way to recruit. Stoffel said he already has his eye on one student he would like the department to hire, and declares that the student is on the fast track to becoming a police officer.

Galt Officer Nathan Meyerdick, who graduated from the program in 2008 after attending weekly meetings for six years, came back to work there.

And Galt Police Officer Kevin Tonn, killed in the line of duty last month, nurtured his law enforcement interest at a young age when he joined Roseville's Police Explorer program in high school. It is still an active post.

Vizzusi has nothing but positive things to say about Galt's program, its teachers and its participants.

"It takes a lot of staff to create a successful program," he said. "It is a great way for our youths to explorer career opportunities in law enforcement, and also a great way to prepare future law enforcement personnel who will be able to carry on all of the great work currently being done."

If you are interested in joining Galt's Police Explorer program, contact Sgt. Jerry Stoffel at 209-366-7082 or gstoffel@galtpd.com.

Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at jenniferb@lodinews.com.

3 images

Dan Evans/News-Sentinel

Oscar German, 20, left, a member of the Galt Police Department Explorers program, searches for his license as Logan Aguirre, 15, right, also an Explorer, performs a mock traffic stop at the department on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013.

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