In second grade, Stevens Dostaly knew he was going to be a police officer.
“It’s always something I wanted to do — protect and serve,” said Dostaly, now 24. “I always had questions about the job and what it entailed. Thank God I went to high school. The program was an eye-opener.”
Dostaly was 16 and a sophomore at North Miami Beach Senior High when he signed up for his city’s police explorer program, which connects officers to students and gives them a firsthand introduction to the field. He stuck around for five years.
All over South Florida, police explorer advisers — including Doral Community Service Officer Noel Feliciano, North Miami Beach Crime Prevention Officer John Philome and Homestead Community Policing Officer Robbie Tate — recruit and train students on the basics of law enforcement. About 535 young people from Homestead to Miami Gardens participate in the law-enforcement exploration program.
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“We teach them the aspects of what we do,” Feliciano said of Doral’s program, which began when the department was founded in 2008. “We always tell them, ‘You’re uniform. You’re representing the police department.’ That gives them a sense of responsibility.”
Along with the uniform, enrolled explorers receive a manual and a list of about 90 number and letter police codes, which are mandatory to memorize for communicating. The kids simulate dispatch, learn how to conduct routine traffic stops and even role-play responding to domestic violence calls.
“It exposes them to the basics and everything that’s entailed in the police department,” said Diane Hickman, director of the South Florida Council for Learning for Life, the not-for-profit corporation that manages the program nationally. “I think it’s the best-kept secret around.”
Initially, the career-explorer program was housed under Boy Scouts of America, but in 1991 Learning for Life took over. Since then, it has partnered with about 30 police departments — most recently Medley — in Miami-Dade County.
In some cities, such as Coral Gables, access to explorer programs has existed since the early 1970s.
“These are young kids who like the police mentality and they get a bit of a real-live taste,” said Maria Higgins, public affairs manager for Coral Gables. “It’s a great introduction to public service.”
Most departments follow similar standards to qualify: Teens must be at least 14, carry a minimum 2.0 GPA and have a clean record. An interest in law enforcement helps too, although it’s not a requirement. In return, the explorers get community service hours and firsthand experience training with officers.
Beyond the application, the programs differ. In Coral Gables, teens have to make it through four months of probation before they get a uniform and equipment. In Homestead, applicants must muscle through a three-month “academy phase” as cadets with physical training, team building and classroom learning. They also have to undergo interviews by senior members before becoming explorers.
“It’s just to set the tone that this is something they have to take seriously,” said Alisha Wiggins, youth coordinator for the Homestead Police Department, adding that the department’s goal is to prepare the students to go out in the world, be confident and have respect for the communities they live in. “We’ve seen our kids are really successful academically because of it.”
Daralene Arocho, chief of the Homestead explorers, remembers the academy’s initial “survival trip” like it was yesterday.
“At first I was like, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ I was scared,” the 18-year-old Arocho said. “You don’t really know how hard you’ve worked until they put you into that situation. You realize PT was all worth it.”
In other departments, explorer stories are the same. Two years ago, now 17-year-old Sabrina Hernandez had signed up for Doral’s program “just for fun.” She liked law enforcement, but wasn’t set on becoming an officer.
“At first I thought it was going to be in the station. I never thought that I would do ride-alongs,” Sabrina said. “I didn’t know we were going to be learning so much.”
Sabrina, who’s been a full-time cheerleader since third grade, latched onto the program’s military-like discipline, learned police code in a week (surprising her advisers) and quickly moved up in rank. Like Dostaly, her experience gave her a glimpse of her future. Within a year, she was a lieutenant — the highest command position in the group.
“I enjoy trying to help people out. I’ve spoken to people that are intoxicated and they’re 16 years old,” Sabrina said. “I enjoy people’s reactions when they find out I’m so young.”
Although it’s not the intent of each department to lock their explorers into law enforcement, it happens.
“Our goal is to make them into productive citizens,” Wiggins said. “We foster independence and maturity as much as possible.”
But for some teens, the process toward a swearing-in ceremony is inevitable.
“In my first full year, I was event security. I fell in love,” Dostaly said. “I started as a recruit and rose to a colonel. Your confidence just starts building.”
Now nearly a decade later, he’s a sworn Florida Highway Patrol trooper. Dostaly graduated as part of the 130th recruit training school at the FHP Training Academy in May.
“My next goal is to enjoy my career and see if I could progress up the chains of command,” he said.
“Hopefully in the next three years I can be a lieutenant or a captain.”