Eleven young people, ages 14 to 20, stood at full attention in the muster room in the back of the 50th precinct house, as their drill sergeant asked them a simple question.
“Are you motivated?”
The young people in the room were members of a “police explorer” force—an extra-curricular program for high school students and others who want to learn about a career in law enforcement.
They meet every Wednesday at 5 p.m. to practice marching drills, reflect on their week and even undergo training for real-life police situations.
“Motivated, motivated, highly motivated,” they chanted in response to their drill sergeant’s question. “Dedicated, dedicated, highly dedicated. You can check us out, you can check us out. Hoorah, hoorah.”
In January, the 50th precinct’s explorer post placed second in a national contest that involved teens conducting mock car stops and frisking perpetrators in the training scenario.
“I do all the trainings with those kids, like crisis negotiation, which is like a hostage situation, search and seizure,” said Abulena Rugova, who has been in the program since high school and now helps teach younger explorers. “Sometimes officers will come in and we’ll do ‘Shoot Don’t Shoot,’ or a felony car stop, they love to come in and join us… In here, it’s like our own little family.”
Police Officer Elizabeth Perez has overseen Police Explorers Post 2050, the group in the 50th precinct, for 12 years, and said the program is as much about building a family as it is about teaching young people about the NYPD and law enforcement.
“I don’t want to just do explorers, I want to teach them life skills,” she said. “I want to talk about real-life stuff, out in the streets, when you get on the bus, when you get on the train, how do you feel?”
Perez said she often refers to the some 30 young people in the program as “her kids” because she cares for them as if they were her own family.
“On Thanksgiving, I always say this, I say ‘We’ve got to have our dinner,’ because I know I am going to have a Thanksgiving dinner at home with my kids, so my conscience has to be clean,” she said. “I make sure everybody eats, all my kids eat. I tell them: Invite your parents, invite your siblings, everybody bring a dish and we’re going to have a big explorer dinner here. So, when I have my dinner at home, I know my heart is good because I made sure every kid ate.”
Many of the teens in the explorer program are what some might call at-risk youth, whether because of poor academic performance, or of growing up in poverty or, in case of some students, of growing up without parents.
Alex Vega, for example, is a 16-year-old student at DeWitt Clinton High School, and though his mother is a sergeant in the NYPD, a little more than a year ago he was failing most of his classes. Then he decided to join the explorers.
“Officer Perez has been on top of my schoolwork, ever since I started [and] I went from an F student to an A student,” he said. “I am now one of the top of my class because of her. She is always on top of me, and if I’m not, then, of course, she makes sure that I get on top of it.”
For Perez, working with the explorers doesn’t just mean training them for potential police work in the future, but for whatever life her “kids,” may lead.
“You don’t want to lose these kids, you want to make sure that what they don’t have at home or what they’re not getting at school, that I am able to provide for them,” she said. “In order to work with teenagers, and kids in general, you must have a passion. You can’t do this and say ‘Oh, good I’m going to have weekends off, I am working Monday to Fridays,’ no you have to make sure that what you do, when they leave, they’re going to benefit, so when they leave, they want to come back.”