Sam Caswell always wanted to be a police officer, but didn't take the idea seriously until last year.
After a year with the Alaska Peace Officers Association's Explorers Program and a summer as the Kenai Police Department's seasonal enforcer, Caswell, 19, is waiting to turn 21, the minimum age requirement to be a Kenai police officer or an Alaska State Trooper.
"It's exciting, you get the chance to help people," Caswell said. "You get respect from people, it seems."
Caswell started going on ride-alongs with the Soldotna Police Department when an officer introduced him to the Explorers Program. Through the program, Caswell and other teenagers, ages 14 to 20, make traffic stops, practice with shotguns and other firearms at the shooting range, go through various DUI scenarios and go on ride-alongs with police officers.
"Pretty much everything a cop does (the students) get to see," Caswell said. "It's different every day, you can never go in and predict what happens."
The Explorers meet every Tuesday through the end of the school year at the Kenai Police Department. Investigator David Ross, who volunteers for the program with Investigator Ben Langham, said the Boy Scouts of America insures the program and provides the basic guidelines, but it's run by local law enforcement.
"Hopefully, some kids can explore different facets of law enforcement," Ross said, adding that guest speakers from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Kenai Fire Department and the Wildwood Pre-Trial facility will give students another look at emergency services. "It's geared toward (students) interested in emergency services, or who have a little bit of interest in law enforcement."
Students new to the program usually ride along and observe, Ross said. But seasoned students learn how to investigate a crime scene, how to shoot, take finger prints, learn defensive tactics and how to operate handcuffs.
Officer Jared Meyer with the Soldotna Police Department said going through the Explorer's Program solidified his career path toward law enforcement. The program on the Kenai Peninsula is unique in that many agencies organize to volunteer with the program, he said, though the Kenai Police Department's the main organizer.
"The program gives you a good exposure to what police work is really like," Meyer said. "It can help you make an informed decision."
The Kenai Explorers Program is part of a larger organization known as Learning for Life. An affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America, Learning for Life began as a boys career program in 1949, and opened its doors to girls in 1971. John Anthony, national director for learning for life, said more than 180,000 Explorers are in 7,500 programs nationwide, exploring a variety of careers ranging from accounting and dentistry to aviation and fire fighting.
"We're even successful if (the students) quit the program because they realize that maybe that wasn't a career they were interested in," Anthony said.
For Caswell, who definitely is interested in law enforcement, joining the Explorers Program not only gave him the hands-on experience a police officer needs to do his job, his work and involvement in the program put him on the Kenai Police Department's radar for their summer job.
"Being in the Explorers helped me get my name out there," Caswell said. "I applied and got hired like anyone else would."
As a seasonal enforcement officer, Caswell patrolled the North Beach area at the height of dipnet season, making traffic stops and impounding vehicles parked illegally. Even though there were times when people didn't take him seriously because of his youth and seasonal status, Caswell said he had full authority on the beach even to stop someone for driving a four-wheeler under the influence.
"I had already warned him once about having kids on the back without helmets," he said. "I made the stop and Investigator Langham performed the field sobriety tests and ended up arresting the guy."
Ross said the program is open to boys and girls ages 14 to 20 with at least a 2.5 grade point average. Students who are interested can't have committed serious crimes in the recent past, Ross said, and the cost to participate is less than $30, which includes a polo-shirt, insurance and a registration fee to the Boy Scouts of America.
In addition to ride-alongs and crime scene investigation, other activities include dodge ball games and a ride on a go-kart with fatal vision goggles on. Ross said he and Langham are trying to arrange a trip to the state crime lab this year as well. Ross said anyone who is interested can contact the Kenai Police Department and speak with him, Langham or Officer Trish Gordon.
Caswell went back to Kenai Peninsula College this semester eager to earn his Associate of Arts Degree. Even though he said he might go back to school to major in Criminal Justice, he's ready to start working.
"I'm not really picky," he said. "Kenai has a great department, but with troopers you get the chance to travel around the state. (Where I work) kind of depends on where life takes me."
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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