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Finding Focus

St. Louis Police Officer Brian North-Murphy shows Explorers the Metro Air Support helicopter.

St. Louis Police Officer Brian North-Murphy shows Explorers the Metro Air Support helicopter.

Explorers investigate more than police careers

Robert Parkinson, 20, a Maryville University student and O’Fallon Police Explorer, has always known that he wanted to be a cop.

A 5-year Explorer veteran, Parkinson said he initially joined the program to get his foot in the door and make sure police work was really for him. Now, Parkinson said he wants to pursue a law enforcement career as a K-9 officer.

“Every now and then we’d have the K-9 officers come in and talk to the Explorers,” Parkinson said. “It fascinated me right away.”

Zach Koch, 17, has been with the O’Fallon Police Explorers for over three years.

“I was going through middle school, kind of seeing a lot of people make some bad choices, and I thought about it,” Koch said. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’d like to make some better choices,’ so I thought about some jobs I could do that in – make a positive impact on people’s lives.”

Koch said he is aiming to become a Missouri State Highway Patrolman, and ideally, would someday like to reach the position of U.S. Marshal.

“Going to track down the worst of the worst would be the most enjoyable job for me,” Koch said.

In a neighborhood near you

Explorers programs exist in many police departments in St. Louis and St. Charles Counties. Cities like Chesterfield, Florissant and O’Fallon are just a few that play host to Explorer posts for young men and women ages 14-21 who are interested in police work.

Explorers learn to march in drill, perform community service, direct traffic and learn about many aspects of law enforcement from active police officers and detectives.

Chesterfield Police Captain Steve Lewis said the Chesterfield Police Explorers post has been around for 23 years. In that time, Lewis said the program has been invaluable for the city. Explorers have assisted police at city functions, and worked in auxiliary posts during the flood of ’93. Quite a few Explorers have graduated and joined the ranks of the Chesterfield Police Department. Included in that number is Lt. Michael Thompson, who joined the Police Explorers when he was 15.

Thompson said that he had always thought about police work, and participating in the Explorers program solidified that interest for him.

“During the program, you get to do ride-alongs with officers,” Thompson said. “So you really get to see what they do every day. The interaction with the public, being able to make some differences and help people out.It’s a great program to get your feet wet and really test the waters, and see if this is really what you want to do before you invest a significant amount of time and energy.”

“This isn’t a job for everybody. I think there are some Explorers that have gone through the program and realized ‘you know what, this isn’t for me, it’s interesting, it’s fun, but this isn’t what I want to make a career out of.’ Exploring allows you to do that in a very non-committal way.”

Understanding law enforcement

Even if an Explorer decides not to pursue a law enforcement career, the youth leaves the program with a better understanding of police work and the ability to better relate to police officers.

While members of law enforcement are often seen as figures of authority, Koch said he realizes that a police officer’s role in the community is a diverse one.

“Very often police officers are put into a position where they have to provide a shoulder to cry on, if you would,” Koch said. “Every officer I’ve ever talked to is absolutely willing to help people through times like that.”

St. Louis Police Lt. Darla Gray, who has been an advisor for the St. Louis Police Explorer post for 34 years, said the program provides the youths with basic skills and experiences that they’d need for any profession.

“(It gives them) the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, gain confidence, leadership skills and just general life skills,” Gray said. “My daughter is in the program, she’s getting ready to age out. She’s going into nursing. She was amazed at how much Exploring helped her in the nursing program.”

This summer, Explorers from across the region will gather at Maryville University to compete and participate in a weeklong Police Explorers Academy.

The academy will feature three groups of Explorers and will host a variety of classes, activities and competitions. The first level is for kids new to the program, level two is for experienced Explorers and the third level is comprised of those getting ready to age out of the program.

Participants will engage in firearms competitions, police testing and attend classes on police work. All of this is designed to help the participants in local Police Explorers programs with the real police academy, should they decide to walk that career path.

“We try to squeeze as much of the six-month police academy into a week as we can,” said Det. Andy Haarmann of the Florissant Police Department, one of the academy’s facilitators.

Beyond preparing them for the day-to-day duties and expectations of a police officer, an Explorers post will prepare those looking to pursue a career in law enforcement for what the real world holds. O’Fallon Police Chief Roy Joachimstaler, who was a part of the original Explorers Post in St. Louis, said this includes the not-so-pleasant aspects of the job.

“They face the facts straight up,” Joachimstaler said. “I guess I’m kind of proud of these young folks nowadays. I was a pretty smart kid, but these teenagers nowadays know more about world events, and especially regional events than we give them credit for. You know all we’ve got to do as adults (is) just shut up and start listening to them sometimes – and don’t side-step their questions.”

“It’s a very eye-opening experience your first day, and from there on, where a lot of people realize that this is a very mentally challenging, and physically challenging job that you can’t slack off on,” Koch said. “People don’t call you to say ‘hi.’ You have to go and help people in the worst points of their lives.”


Exploring Beyond Law Enforcement 

While Police Explorer programs are a popular option, there are a variety of different types of posts that young adults can join.

Exploring any type of career gives a ‘leg up’ to young adults who are interested in a desired field. Providing this type of guidance and experience is what the Explorers Program is all about, according to Mary April, field director for Learning for Life Exploring.

April said there are posts with a great number of different organizations, including fire and ambulance districts, local hospitals, Edward Jones and Boeing.

“Back in the day, we had internships, where kids would learn about businesses and be able to go into businesses pretty easily,” April said. “And they don’t have many of those anymore. There’s not that access to get into companies as well.”

Carol Nelson, Boeing’s K-12 STEM Outreach Project Manager, said in the fall, Boeing Explorers choose which engineering disciplines they are interested in, such as aerospace, electrical or mechanical engineering. Then each month, Carol said she attempts to provide hands-on experiences.

Carol said Boeing is trying to support students in the region, give them hands-on experience and hopefully encourage them to look at careers in the engineering profession.

The Metro West Fire Protection District has an Explorers post as well, which started in early 2000. Many of its goals mirror those of law enforcement, building leadership skills, developing mental and physical fitness and making contacts in the field.

Also similar to law enforcement, the Metro West Explorers receive a better understanding of a firefighter/EMT’s role and also learn job-related skills like CPR and basic first aid.

Exploring can help young adults looking at the trade skills as well. One upcoming post will let Explorers work with a downtown steel company, and work with steel and on an air conditioner, April said.

“Some kids are not going to college, so this is a great way to start out a career in a trade and go from there,” she said.

April said Explorers have the ability to try out any post they like as long as they are enrolled in the program. She said one of her recent Explorers participated in four different posts, including ones at the St. Louis Zoo and Mercy Hospital.

“It’s pretty cool; it gets kids thinking about what they want to do for their careers,” April said. “There are all kinds of things you learn.”

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