At the 50th Precinct, 30 kids are afforded the opportunity to learn and develop through their pivotal teenage years as an NYPD Explorer.
But one teen Explorer never got that chance. Lesandro Guzman-Feliz, also known as “Junior,” was stabbed to death last June. He had hoped one day to become a police detective, his family said, and Junior’s death cast a cloud over what normally would’ve been a fun summer youth program.
“It was very sad for everybody to see someone die like that in such a horrific way,” said Elizabeth Perez, a veteran officer with the 50th Precinct, and the leader of the Explorers program there. “I had them all email me, text me, and it was heartbreaking. As a parent it was really, really horrible, and the 5-0 took it really bad too.”
Under the watchful eye of Perez, who has led the program locally for more than 15 years, the Explorers gather every Wednesday at the precinct to learn leadership and life skills. It’s also about giving back to the community, many times taking on community projects that each of the Explorers have taken on individually.
“If we can attend, we will,” Perez said. “And sometimes we’ll come up with our own community service. We’ll clean the back lawn, we’ll clean the precinct, we’ll give out crime prevention flyers. Or we help out the elderly at the supermarkets.”
To supplement the school year meetings, some Explorers partake in a free law enforcement summer camp hosted by the Explorers program in collaboration with the Boy Scouts of America. The three-week Law Enforcement Exploring Academy is a mock police academy for high school kids, according to Travis Smith, a director of a career-awareness organization Exploring, that conducts the camp. The first two weeks are held at Fordham University, a partner of the program, with a third week at a scout camp on Staten Island.
“My goal as a police officer is to make sure that they graduate high school,” Smith said. “I also tell them … to try to break the cycle, to be better than their parents. I create goals for them. Some of them come in here they don’t know what goals are, they don’t know what to do. They have no mindset of what they want to do in life, so I open up the options for them.”
Although Junior was not part of the 50th Precinct’s Explorers program, for many in the local program, it felt a lot like when police officers lose one of their own in the line of duty.
“We all paid our respects,” Perez said. “But it was sad. I was just talking with them about the way that they felt about that incident. I started talking about association, who your friends are, going downstairs at a certain time. Just stay home, stay away from certain people. Stay low, stay focused. You’ve got to stay focused to do what you need to do.”
Throughout her experience leading the Explorers, Perez has fostered connections with each teen who’s made it through the program. With ease, she recounts where dozens of her former Explorers are now, where in the world they are succeeding — be it on the force or in the civilian world.
It’s the family atmosphere instilled in the 50th Precinct that has led to so much success for the program over the years, Perez said. Whether it’s commanding officer Terence O’Toole ordering Domino’s Pizza on a Wednesday night or Perez taking them out to a movie after a long day of community service, the Explorers are in a home environment where program leaders want to see them thrive.
“Some of them call me mom,” Perez said. “I am a mom. It’s my passion to make a difference and to make sure that they’re getting somewhere. That’s my goal.”