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Explorer scouts help LAPD make busts

Kids as cops

“You want to know who’s dealing drugs, who’s fighting who, who’s ripping off cars—just ask the kids.”
  • “You want to know who’s dealing drugs, who’s fighting who, who’s ripping off cars—just ask the kids.”
  • Image by Morgan Shannon

WE HAVE pulled over to the side of the road, primed for transgression. As usual on a Friday night, latecomers for “Laserium” at the Griffith Park Observatory are parking their cars further and further down this long, wooded road and then making the trek to the top. There are no street lights, so it is very dark but for the car beams; the sides of the road, with their graduated cliffs, tall trees and thickets, are shrouded and still. But not desolate. In the crannies of the cliffs and up against the ample tree trunks shadows breathe, and 40 eyes and ears are straining for the sight or sound of crime. The Los Angeles Police Department’s law enforcement Explorers, teenagers all of the Hollywood post, are out in full force for their favorite activity, the night they all wait for, the experience that brings them closest to being police—command post.

“I knew them. They were from my high school."

“I knew them. They were from my high school."

A young girl’s voice, urgent, comes over this unmarked car’s CB radio, reporting that she's spied a couple in a car, smoking pot. “Leave ’em alone,” barks the officer. He laughs ruefully, shaking his head. “Such enthusiasm. These Explorers," he says fondly, “they wanna put everybody in jail. Now if they were dealing, it’d be a different story.”

My backseat companion, a 19-year-old veteran Explorer, begins to reminisce about command posts past. A Mexican-American youth, his speech is Spanish-accented; his dark hair is cut regulation short; and he is courteous, crisp, impeccable in his Explorer khakis with the badge and stripes on his sleeve. The first incident, he says, occurred when he was on a rooftop in Hollywood, and resulted only in a juvenile's being booked on a marijuana charge. But the other! That was the real caper, with commendations coming down even from the captain. Again posted on a Hollywood rooftop just about a year ago, he and some other Explorers had spotted people in a parked car, and thought they looked suspicious. They radioed the police to investigate, and guess what they found? Three bags of marijuana, five bags of heroin, 15,000 bennies, melted-down silver, and watches. “The best part was when they had these two people in custody, and the Explorers all in uniform came down off the rooftops—people were looking. Where did these guys come from, who are they? There we were. Explorers, and we made a bust! That felt great—I loved every minute of it.”

This night, however, is wearing on without a whisper of real wrong-doing. Oh, for a good bust. Police reports say there has been a lot of stuff ripped off from cars up here; where is everybody? There’s a chill in the air, and one Explorer calls in for a jacket, several more to ask the time—this stake-out won’t end until 2300. It is monotonous to sit in a car, or crouch behind some bushes, and just wait for something to happen. After an hour or so of this, almost anything will do. One of the cops in our accompanying black-and-white (they call it the z-car, for zebra) tells us he has just given out a traffic ticket. “Chicken shit,” he mutters. This situation has its own peculiar power—to be out here like this is to want action. And no one wants it more than the Explorers, who only get such an opportunity about once a month.

“Six to ten, six to ten.”

“Ten to six, go."

“Six to ten, some people . . . talking about money . . . gram.” The radio is bad, the message garbled, but we’ve heard enough. “Ten to six, z-car’s coming up, watch for him. We’re coming also.” The officer guns the motor, to the Explorer next to him says, “Got my hat?” And we’re off.

THIS GROUP of young Explorers is no Hollywood aberration, no anomalous offshoot of the place where one might expect the lines of reality and cops-and-robbers fantasy to blur. Currently there are about 35,000 law enforcement Explorers nation-wide, and while the movement first began to pick up significant membership in the late 60s, it is within the last three years that its numbers have practically doubled. Los Angeles leads the country with a contingent of roughly 3.500—composed mainly of LAPD and LA County Sheriffs Department Explorers, as well as those from some independent police stations—and seems to be in the vanguard of the movement, due to the enthusiastic backing of LAPD Chief Ed Davis and Sheriff Peter Pitchess. It is here, after all, that Explorers have been placed behind precinct desks, on rooftops, and in patrol cars; other departments, especially in the East, have been more conservative in their approach.

Exploring has its roots in the political and social turbulence of the mid-60s, when the Boy Scouts of America decided to do what it could to buttress the faltering strength of traditional American values. BSA had long offered recreation Exploring for teenagers, but now that bourgeois norms were fading fast, something more than campfires was needed to bring young people back into the silent fold. “With the complete breakdown of trust in the free enterprise system among youth, business leaders began to look around for a group that still had those values,” explains BSA Exploring Coordinator Dale Miller, “and they found us.” Exploring thus became career oriented for 14- to 20-year-olds—something to bridge the perilous gap, to harness the energy of the volatile teen years. Branches sprung up in law enforcement, medicine, engineering, emergency services, space science, and other fields.

If any group in the mid-60s needed help with its public image, its ability to attract qualified applicants, its relationship to the community (and particularly youth), it was was law enforcement. And by 1968, a distinct shift in national priorities began to augur well for the beleaguered agency. With the New Frontier and the Great Society fast becoming meaningless cliches, it was time to tighten up; to stop trying to reform societal institutions and structure, where the roots of crime are embedded; to forget the stunningly simple fact that it is the poor who fill our prisons. It was no longer, society we needed to correct, but its wayward individuals. Our highest goal became control. Federal funds for poverty programs. Model Cities, and educational experimentation dried up; crime control bills and programs like the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA)—created in 1968 and spending one billion dollars a year by 1974—came into being. The social sector that now had money, clout, and passionate conviction was committed not only to reinforcing the status quo, but to controlling and managing deviance.

MEANWHILE, on the local level, law enforcement began renovating and refurbishing. “Community relations,” some of it federally funded, moved to the fore. In different areas the programs have gone by different names, but the thrust is the same: into the civilian population; to patch up a battered public image; to rally everyone to the good fight; to root out the dangerous and depraved amongst us; to exaggerate the we-they orientation—we the police and decent folk, they the other, criminal beings whose dread actions could never be ours. It is, after all, a very gratifying notion, and far easier than having to think about why our society is rife with rage and desperation.

The largest of these police-public programs include uniformed officers teaching junior high and high school classes in police work (between the LAPD and Sheriffs Department, they cover about 95 schools); a delinquency deterrent program for nine to 14-year-olds, in which officers take kids to athletic events and talk to them about crime (LAPD has roughly 3,000 Deputy Auxiliary Police, called DAPs—many go on to become Explorers); neighborhood watch, which focuses on educating people about burglary prevention, and is being funded by LEAA in 1,612 locations around the country; and Explorers, whose new national coordinator is funded by LEAA. Explorers also conduct a junior neighborhood watch for eight to 12-year-olds. Considered a high-priority program by the LAPD, its aim is to reach children through another person, and persuade them at a tender age to both revere the law and not tolerate any infractions among their peers. Youngsters are considered naturally sharp crime-watchers. “You want to know who’s dealing drugs, who’s fighting with who, who’s ripping off cars—just ask the kids,” one officer schooled her Explorers, preparing for junior neighborhood watch.

Of all these programs, however, the only one to encourage civilians not only to ally themselves more strongly with police but to (almost) feel themselves police, is Exploring. It is also the program that evokes the most lavish praise from both the LAPD and Sheriffs Department. They talk about how these kids are the cream of the crop (and never let the kids forget it, either), how they will accept only the best (“this is not a rehabilitation program”), how this offers decent young people a structured alternative to gang life, drugs, or political “weirdness.” The officers involved are clearly dedicated, and often work long, unpaid hours. They and their department feel confident, however, of high returns— whether or not the Explorers go on to careers in law enforcement, which an uncertain number do (a rough guess placed the figure at 30 percent). As explained by education coordinator Sergeant Kenneth Clark, who has been at the Sheriffs Explorer academy since it opened in 1969, and whose eyes brim with evangelical fervor when he talks about Exploring: “If we can reach a large number of our young people today who are going to be the leaders tomorrow, and they have an opportunity to relate first-hand to law enforcement, then they’re not going to have any misunderstandings or misgivings about it. They’re going to say, ‘Hey! I know what the mission and goal of law enforcement is; I know what their problems are; I know they need more money, because I was involved with them for three or four years; I rode with them in a radio car; I experienced what they experience, and therefore I support them!”

The ordinary citizen, too, is said to benefit by a saving in tax dollars, inasmuch as these young people perform nonhazardous duties—precinct paper work, crowd control at parades, lost child searches, fingerprinting—that paid officers would often have to be performing. And the LAPD claims that when Explorers were used as uniformed patrols in the parking lot of the Greek Theater this past summer—as they often are at department stores before Christmas—that area’s 44 vehicle-related crimes from summer 1975 dropped to four.

IT IS EASY to see then how law enforcement makes out, and to a lesser degree how the community may—but what about the kids? Is this a rather sensitive area—putting 14-year-olds through a police academy (either LAPD or Sheriffs) every Saturday for several months, with classes in narcotics, vice, gangs, firearms, baton training, and jail procedures; and then capping this by putting them in police stations, patrol cars, and command posts? The components of a police officer’s daily routine (his constant exposure to the burnt-out and desperate, his need to be always on guard, his assignment to go out and get the criminal with the power vested in him) are rather potent, and they take their toll on the best and most decent of cops. Furthermore, there is an intensely insular bonding that goes on among police, who feel much like a tightly-knit family, united before a cold, mostly hostile world; and now Explorers partake of it. Does the experience tend to make these young ones puritanical defenders of the status quo; give their harshest impulses a special and lofty sanction, and the authority of the state an absolute, unquestionable legitimacy? In a poll of 40 Explorers at two posts (Sheriffs and LAPD), the reply to the question, “Do you think those who commit felonies should be given stiffer prison sentences than many are today?” was a unanimous “Yes!,” with a^few adding recommendations for the death penalty. Most attributed the current crime rate to our being too soft on offenders, and said that they would certainly report any illicit activity they noted in their schools.

“We’re not making them narcs on campus,” asserts Sergeant Joe Offit, Explorer coordinator for the Sheriffs Department. “They should be responsible citizens, though, and report a crime just like anyone else. But I don’t want to leave the impression that we’re training the Youth Nazi Movement.”

AMONG ALL Exploring fields, law enforcement has the largest membership, with only medicine coming close. What is it that has rallied so many into police ranks, especially in the last two or three years? There are blacks from Watts and Mexican-Americans from East Los Angeles and whites from the Valley, and they are all alike imbued with the passion to march and to drill, to represent their department to the best of their ability. Most are not the children of police. Many are recruited through a slide-show presented in their police-taught classes, in which the voice of Jack Webb urges them to accept the challenge and stand tall. KTLA TV’s Johnny Grant, national vice-chairman of law enforcement Explorers, attributes much of the burgeoning popularity of police work among youth to television. Until 1970, Grant points out, television was filled with westerns and medical programs; then police shows began, and now they seem to own the air.

Once-bellicose LAPD Chief Ed Davis, appearing quite sanguine these days now that he sees the national mood coming around his way, emphasizes that Explorers are just a small cross-section of multitudes of youth across the land who have “amazingly straight values.” Such moral rectitude he attributes to their having witnessed the downfall of their older brothers and sisters, decadent denizens of the 60s who “used dope and shacked up, grew their whiskers long and put beads on."

But these stalwart young ones, he says, have seen “the soft underbelly of the libertine movement” and the future is theirs.

  • Everywhere we go
  • People want to know
  • Who we are, so we tell ’em
  • We’re the LAPD!
  • Mighty mighty LAPD!
  • LAPD is the best!
  • Am I right or wrong?
  • You’re right!
  • —Recruits’ marching chant

THE FLAG has been raised; the flag is flying. Recruits are on the move, marching in time. Most of the Explorers I’ve met thus far have said that if I want to know what it means to be one, how hard it is and how loyal and proud it makes them feel, I must not miss the academy. So the morning after the“Laserium” stakeout, I drive out to the lovely, expansive grounds of the LAPD academy. The place is swarming with blue uniforms, khaki uniforms, and a motley mass of T-shirts and jeans. But for the boys’ short hair, they look an ordinary enough group of adolescents—some are overweight, some slouch, some shuffle; some girls have careless hair, jeans that fit like leotards. No matter. They will either not make it, or be transformed. Out of this group of about 200. 50 are expected to be dropped.

A platoon has taken its place on the physical training (PT) field. “One, sir! Two, sir! Three, sir!”—to the jumping jacks, push-ups, dorsal arches, sit-ups. A young, rangy-looking boy, wearing a “Foothill” T-shirt, designating his post, leaps to his feet and runs retching from the field. “Foothill!” barks an instructor, but Foothill keeps going. The sun is beginning to blaze. Another youth can’t make the last few sit-ups. Two officers and two full-fledged Explorers encircle him, arms akimbo, demanding that he sit up. He is flat. Sometimes, when a recruit is deemed clumsy or reticent, the whole group has got to “hit the fence,” which means a sprint of about 150 yards, and a punitive repeat of the exercise. It embarrasses the recruit, an officer offers, and it also helps to get them thinking of themselves as a unit, not a bunch of self-centered individuals.

“No talking, groaning, moaning, whining, or crying!” bellows a particularly vociferous PT instructor. “Is that UNDERSTOOD?" “Sir, yes sir!”

An Explorer adviser comes loping off the field, sweat running down his face. “These kids love being yelled at!” he exults. “The discipline is what they crave.” They want to share in the police department spirit, it offers them something they can believe in, a place where morality is still upheld — practically the only place. This he must then qualify by adding that there are always a few bad apples—an oft-repeated phrase around the department these days; a delicate, oblique way of referring to the police-Explorer sex scandal. It is quite discomfiting, amidst all this exhorting Explorers to live up to the spirit of the department and keep their “private lives unsoiled as an example to all,” to acknowledge that five LA PD officers (out of 16 investigated) have recently had criminal charges filed against them for sexual misconduct with female Explorers, ages 16 to a. 18, over a period of two years. The officers I’ve spoken with seem alternately titillated by these events—they were passing around pictures of the girls in the station one day—and more suitably indignant. As one officer put it, it should never have happened, but was certainly understandable; a clear case of human frailty. For one thing, he thinks that many police adapt to the dangers of their lot by living day-to-day, developing a devil-may-care attitude. More important, he added, women young and old just seem to go wild over the power and phallic symbols—gun, baton—of an officer of the peace. “Sometimes, you’d have to have water running through your veins..."

However understanding some police are of their fellows’ transgression, the Explorers are not. Most seem to take everything about their affiliation with the department, including its moral code, with the utmost seriousness. They say they would report one of their contingent who became lax, sexually or otherwise. (The sex scandal was leaked by another Explorer, not an LAPD member.) As one 17-year-old girl told me, “When you’re wearing this uniform, or once people know who you are, you have to always project a good image of yourself and the department. You have to call people ‘Ma’am’ and ‘Sir’. You have to act professional. You can’t just be yourself anymore, you have to watch always to show only your good side. You’re part of LAPD now, and you have to alter your personality and actions to fit it.”

IN “EXPLORER orientation” at the academy, instructors stress not only making one’s moral life exemplary but also remembering that—in spite of the bonding, the uniforms, the quasi-military academy— they are after all just exploring. Some people out there have decided it’s open season on cops, recruits are told, and if they start impersonating an officer, their ruse may be short-lived. On rare occasions they may be called upon to use their training and act as police—as did the Sheriffs Explorer in South El Monte, who joined in a shotgun battle when the two officers he’d been patrolling with were wounded, and was himself shot in the leg. The more common situation, however, is Explorers’ assuming police functions when they shouldn't be. “We had one that had a police radio and would get to police calls before the police did,” an Explorer from North Hollywood said. “Another would go to school playgrounds and try to play police.” Both were reportedly dropped. Another source indicated that once every few months, some Explorer malfeasance, like stealing a police car, shows up in police reports. The police do not deny this sort of thing occurs, but say that the background checks recently expanded by both the LAPD and Sheriffs Explorers are designed to weed out the unstable, overzealous, or delinquency-prone fringe. Sheriffs Explorers carry out the background checks themselves, talking to other young people, neighbors, sometimes teachers of the candidates.

The platoon has finished PT with a two-mile run, and now marches off to “Basic Criminal Law.” The instructor is Sergeant Washington, a black officer who also teaches “Police Role in Government” at University High School in West Los Angeles. He remarks that he always reminds his high school students that they must not confess to him; he’s a police officer first and foremost, but they do it anyway; they bare their souls—as if he represented some superhuman authority, he says. Does he think his high school class alters the habits of its students? “Not really. A kid who smokes pot is still going to smoke it. But at least when he gets busted—which is sad—his having a friendly relationship with me is going to make it easier on the arresting officer.” From here we move on in formation to a class on gangs, with smiling, rosy-cheeked and black-haired Officer Diaz, who begins by saying that until about a year ago he worked undercover, posing as a blond, long-haired hippie at San Pedro, Fairfax, and Canoga Park high schools. It was fun, but hard work. He was one of the 11 undercover narcs who arrested 211 students in the big drug bust, he adds with some pride. Today he’s brought with him two gang leaders, Kiki and Oso. from El Sereno and Clantone, who’ll take questions from the group.

Bit by bit, they explain the code by which they live—their loyalty, their pledge to avenge one another, their protection of their turf. The recruits seem alternately awed by its machismo, and angered by the affront to LAPD authority. How do they feel about the LAPD? one bristly Explorer wants to know. Oso answers that some are okay, others he wouldn’t mind seeing dead on the floor before him. He explains that there are those who will shake you down, put handcuffs on, and then start calling you names, pushing you around. One cop accused him of writing graffiti on a wall recently, and when he denied it, the other said, “You calling my partner a liar?” and shoved his nightstick hard into Oso’s mouth. Diaz shifts uncomfortably, saying we all come on strong sometimes. After class, a ranking Explorer sums up what he has learned. “It’s a sickness,” he utters disgustedly.

At lunchbreak, the only unregimented 30 minutes of the day, I ask some veteran Explorers how their peers at school feel about them. Sometimes they get called “junior pig.” They have to be careful about whose party they attend, whose car they take a ride in— could there be a joint in the glove compartment?—and it makes them scrutinize their associates pretty closely. One very thin, blond Explorer demurs. He’s pretty much of a loner at school; the only friends he has are other Explorers, short-hairs like him. “The first thing people ask when they find out is, ‘Are you a narcT' volunteers another, and there is a chorus of agreement. That is the question. Of course they are not narcs, neither the LAPD nor the Sheriffs Department would send them forth with such a foolhardy mission. But after all their academy training and indoctrination, what does happen is that they become very eager, sophisticated observers of criminal activity— and like the Explorer back in Suffolk County, New York, who identified a bookie bank in his neighborhood and sent two men to prison with his testimony, they know what to look for, whom to tell, and what to remember. Their reward is the gratitude and esteem of the department, which every Explorer I met seems to revere. As one officer proudly said, “These young people go out from this program as disciples.” So the answer is no, they certainly are not narcs—but are they ever responsible citizens.

I spot the young recruit who overheard the suggestive exchange at the observatory, and radioed it in. He is not the typical Explorer. A couple of hours ago, I watched him bringing up the sad rear of the two-mile run, near the end being pulled along by both arms by two PT instructors. And unlike his fellows, when asked why he wants to be an Explorer he does not say for the excitement, or because he’s considering it as a career, or because he wants to crush crime. He says he wants to know what a police officer goes through. If his first instinct is empathy, as I guess, I wonder how he is feeling about last night’s work. The incident involved three guys and a girl. The guys were clean, so the officer figured the girl had the stuff, but since he can’t search a female except under life-threatening circumstances, he had to let them go.

“I knew them,” the recruit replies. “They were from my high school. And when I saw the officer shaking them down, I started having second thoughts. I’m glad it came out the way it did.” But if they’d been strangers instead of schoolmates, what then? “Then I think I would just have been excited,” he says slowly, “and proud to have made a good bust.”

POLICE are teaching. Students are policing. People who used to work for Office of Economic Opportunity projects now show up running police youth bureaus and delinquency prevention programs funded by LEAA. It is a new and rather provocative intermingling, this menage a trois between our educational, social service, and law enforcement systems, and we tend to accept uncritically the most ominous combinations because of the terrible depredations that crime has brought into our daily lives. The latest anti-crime combo comes to us once again from the LEAA, which has just invested 3.2 million dollars in a program to “combat school violence.” Teams composed of school personnel, a police officer, and students in 80 schools across the country will be trained by the U.S. Office of Education. Furthermore, “delinquent youths and students with histories of disruption” will be enlisted to help carry out strategies in junior high and high schools in ten low-income areas—sometimes for academic credit.

Perhaps it is worth remembering that the reason Symbionese Liberation Army members killed Oakland School Superintendent Marcus Foster—according to Emily Harris—was that he had supported an LEAA pilot project to link up educational institutions with police agencies. It provided, among other things, for bringing armed police into Oakland public schools, and instituting a national computer bank into which police would feed biographical dossier information on troublemakers. That particular plan was killed after Foster was. But now it would seem that the LEAA has caught on—possibly having noted how well law enforcement Explorers have hunkered to—and realizes that there’s no need for anything as overt and inflammatory as introducing a squad of cops into school corridors, when you can just use the kids.

Ed. Note: The San Diego police Explorers post includes about 45 junior and senior high school students. At the present time, they are not used in stakeouts, nor as security guards in private businesses. Financially, the Explorers -are completely self-sufficient; they receive no funding from any source.

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