For 21⁄2 hours every Wednesday evening, a group of teenagers and young adults known as Explorers meet at the California Highway Patrol Stockton Office for a mentorship program in which they learn discipline, confidence, physical fitness and numerous other skills they will need should they choose to pursue careers in law enforcement.
“They basically get the same training we get,” said Officer Charlie Katzakian. “Some of these kids may not go into law enforcement, but it’s going to give them life skills.”
Explorers can start as early as 15 years old, Katzakian said, and age out at 21.
“Technically, at 21, you can apply to be an officer,” Katzakian said.
Lexi Domenech, 17, has been an Explorer for five months.
“I want to go into law enforcement, so it would be a really good experience and it has taught me life skills that I wouldn’t get anywhere else,” Domenech said.
Some of those skills include self defense, discipline and confidence, Domenech said, as well as professionalism.
Although the program may seem intimidating at first, Domenech said there is no reason for someone interested in becoming an Explorer to be afraid.
“Just go into it and learn as you go,” Domenech said.
In addition to light blue uniforms — complete with patches — the Explorers also have their own ranking system with two sergeants, a lieutenant and a captain.
“They learn the structure of the agency,” Katzakian said.
The Explorers must meet requirements for physical fitness and performance in school, Katzakian said, as well as attendance.
“It’s a commitment, and we hold them accountable,” Katzakian said. “They have to report to their sergeant with a reason they’re not here.”
With just over a year in the Explorer program, 16-year-old Casie Dimas said she has learned communication skills that she can use with her friends, family and others, as well as how to be loud.
“I was really shy at first, but from being here and with the help of my peers, I learned to relax,” Dimas said.
Dimas has also learned about day-to-day life at Stockton CHP, and said the program would be a valuable experience for anyone interested in joining.
“Go for it,” Dimas said. “It doesn’t hurt to try it out and see if you like it or not. Test the waters a little bit.”
During their most recent training, the Explorers practiced skills needed for what Officer James Smith calls a “routine traffic stop,” including communicating their position and direction of travel over the radio, running license plates and how to approach a vehicle.
“We always train to do passenger-side approaches,” Smith said.
Although he supervises the Explorers during their training, Smith tries to let those with more experience — such as 21-year-old Sgt. Vincent Solari — teach the newer members as much as possible.
“If they can teach it back, they’ll be that much more confident in their skills,” Smith said.
In addition to helping his fellow Explorers learn the ropes, Solari also lends a hand at various community events throughout the year. He has also learned valuable life skills himself.
“It’s helped me be more assertive, and all-around shaped me into what I think is a better person,” Solari said.
With more than a year of experience, Solari had plenty of advice to offer prospective Explorers, including studying cases — especially those involving use of force — and to practice being physically fit.
“Working out is a big part of it,” Solari said. “You’ve got to be in shape.”
After every Explorer ran through the traffic stop scenario, the training moved inside where they learned how to respond to a suicidal suspect with a knife.
Dressed from head to toe in protective padding and holding a rubber training knife, Katzakian played the role of a suicidal man inside of a DMV office, pacing back and forth angrily as the Explorers teamed up in pairs and took turns trying to take him into custody.
“I’ve had enough of it! Just go away!” Katzakian yelled.
Some Explorers asked Katzakian nicely to drop the knife and told him they were there to help, while others immediately drew their blue training pistols and commanded him to drop the weapon and get on his knees.
Sometimes he complied, sometimes he threatened them, and at least once Katzakian was taken to the ground by the Explorers.
Smith debriefed each pair after they completed the exercise, asking them what they did right and what they could do better next time before giving them advice. Keeping a safe distance from a person with a knife was a common theme.
“If you can get that time and distance, those are the two things that are going to keep us alive,” Smith said.
Four times a year, the Explorers have a chance to put their skills to the test at competitions. The most recent competition took place at the State Capitol last weekend, where their post took third place in the active shooter scenario.
Teamwork was one of the most important skills, according to 19-year-old Sgt. Sawan Verma who was the second Explorer in a team of four to search for the shooter.
“The first man, his weapon malfunctioned,” Verma said. “I then took point and we went on from there.”
After entering the building, Verma quickly found the shooter.
“I went toward the sound of gunfire, went into a room, saw the shooter and took out the threat,” Verma said. “We then took control of the weapon and cleared the rest of the building.”
Last weekend’s competition was far from their first, Katzakian said, as the post took first place for “Best Overall” in the 2018 Central Coast Law Enforcement Explorer Competition. The large green trophy was just one of many in their trophy room.
“We’re actually a pretty competitive post,” Katzakian said.