Orange Police Explorer program leads to law enforcement careers

By Elysse James

The car is stopped at Pierce Park when two young Orange Police Department Explorers carefully step out of a patrol car and walk toward the vehicle to ask to see a driver’s license and registration.

Luckily, the driver complies – this time – during the exercise at the police station.

Orange Police Explorer Ian Garibay places suspect Isair Gonzalez in handcuffs with Elias Cuenca, left, backing him up during a training exercise.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The 10 Explorers of Post #266 are practicing felony car stops, one of many scenarios they practice in preparation for annual Explorer competitions. The scenarios also prepare the 14- to 21-year-olds for real-life situations, should they pursue a career in law enforcement.

“The Explorer program is oriented, obviously, toward kids that are interested in the field of law enforcement, but we don’t necessarily just want kids that are interested,” said Det. Fernando Maldonado, a former Costa Mesa Explorer and Cadet. He’s been with the Orange Police Department for 11 years and is one of six Explorer advisors. “We want everybody to come out here and explore. I want them to be contributing members of society, and to get the perspective of what police officers deal with in today’s world.”

Orange Police Explorer Advisor Det. Fernando Maldonado talks about what they learned after each training exercise.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

This is the start of a career path for Explorer Sgt. Josie Barragan, 16, who’s been with Post #266 for nearly four years. She views this as a way to gain leadership skills while serving her community, and she enjoys the annual competitions against other Explorer posts.

“My first experience was really fun,” Barragan said. “I was with all these senior Explorers, they were all experienced and I wasn’t. It was my first year. I learned a lot from it.”

Orange Police Sgt. Darrin Hall works with Explorer Sgt. Kelly Banderas and Christian Alonzo, right, during a training exercise.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

She recalls having to carry a medicine ball, Army-crawl, and row a boat together with her teammates at a recent competition in Arizona.

“It puts you under a stressful situation, but we handled it,” Barragan said. That year, the team took third place.

Orange Police Explorers Sgt. Josie Barragan, left, and Sgt. Kelly Banderas conduct an inspection before the start of a training exercise. Explorers at attention from left: Christian Alonzo, Gabriel Cuenca, Elias Cuenca, Erik Lin, and Jesus Echavarria.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

In addition to practicing police work and competing, Post #266 helps with city events such as National Drug Take Back Day, the upcoming National Night Out, and the Orange International Street Fair.

It was during one such program – National Night Out (this year’s event is Aug. 7) – that Explorer Sgt. Kelly Banderas, 18, learned about the program. A fan of shows like “Criminal Minds,” she was curious about a law enforcement career.

Orange Police Explorers Sgt. Kelly Banderas and Sgt. Josie Barragan, right, order other Explorers to stand at attention as they arrive in the lobby of the Orange Police Department.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Once she got to know the members of Post #266, she was hooked. She likes the sense of discipline and the bonds she’s made with the Explorers and advisors. The program helped solidify her desire for a career in policing.

“(Explorers) does give you insight and helps you figure out if you’re really interested or not, because it’s more than just watching a video on what law enforcement is,” Banderas said. “You get hands-on experience.”

Orange Police Explorer Christian Alonzo participates in a training exercise on the proper procedures for handling a suspect who may be armed and dangerous.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Explorer Christian Alonzo, 18, of Orange has been in the program for nearly two years and also hopes to one day be a police officer. Right now, he is majoring in Human Services at Santa Ana College.

“Growing up I was always very shy and quiet,” Alonzo said. “(Explorers) definitely taught me to speak up and be more confident and walk with my head up; just have that posture and that look that shows self-confidence and have a higher self-esteem.”

Orange Police Explorers Ian Garibay (from left), Erik Lin, Jesus Echavarria, and Elias Cuenca during a training exercise at Pierce Park, an area behind the Orange Police Department headquarters often used for training.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Many former Explorers have gone on to full-time work at the Orange Police Department, Records Manager and Explorer Advisor Kathy Palacio said. She is a former Explorer herself. She joined the program at age 15, graduated to a part-time Cadet position at age 19, and has since risen through the ranks.

The advisors, Palacio said, also educate the teens about non-sworn positions in law enforcement, such as dispatch, records, property, crime analysis, and crime prevention.

Orange Police Explorer Sgt. Josie Barragan conducts an inspection of the lower-ranked Explorers before the start of a training exercise.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“You don’t necessarily have to be a police officer,” Palacio said. “There are many other careers within the department that you could go into.”

The Explorer program was the beginning of the career path for many full-time officers, including Gang Investigator and Explorer Advisor Miguel Zamora. He started in a Regional Occupational Program (ROP) and joined Post #266 at age 15.

“This program is a stepping stone that just taught me so much,” Zamora said. “It made me a better officer.”

Orange Police Explorer Christian Alonzo, left, places handcuffs on suspect Isair Gonzalez during a training exercise as Explorers Gabriel Cuenca and Sgt. Josie Barragan keep on guard for anyone else who may still be in the suspectÕs car.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The advisors, he said, make the program even more impactful.

“I still have a great relationship with my advisors,” Zamora said. “I work alongside them and that’s pretty interesting.”

The advisors help Explorers build their leadership and communication skills, and help them raise their confidence and self-esteem.

Orange Police Explorer Sgt. Josie Barragan gives verbal orders for a driver to exit the car during a training exercise on the proper procedures for handling a suspect who may be armed and dangerous. Simulated guns are used during the exercise.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“I owe so much to this program,” Crime Prevention Specialist and Explorer Advisor Dyanna Sapp said. She’s a former Orange Explorer and was a Cadet in the Detective division. “That’s why now I work as an advisor, because I know the value of it and what it does for kids. We have kids that start off the shyest kids ever and then they rise up to be our captains”

Barragan agrees.

“With a program like this, it’s taught me to go beyond my limit and always challenge yourself,” he said.

Orange Police Explorer Christian Alonzo instructs other Explorers on the proper way to handle a handgun at the start of a training exercise.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The Orange Police Department’s Post #266 was the first established municipal police explorer post in the country, and the department is currently accepting applications for the year-round program. Explorers must be high school students, age 14 and older, with at least a 2.1 grade point average. They meet for 2.5 hours every Wednesday night.

“I feel like it could be for everybody,” Alonzo said. “If you decide to do it, it’ll really help out your character. You’ll notice changes within yourself, whether it is really small ones like making your bed… Just try it out.”

To join Orange Police Explorer Post 226, visit https://www.cityoforange.org/674/Explorers.

Orange Police Explorers Erik Lin, left, Ian Garibay, and Gabriel Cuenca run through an exercise on handling a suspect who may be armed and dangerous.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Orange Police Explorer Gabriel Cuenca places suspect Isair Gonzalez in handcuffs with Ian Garibay, left, as backup during a training exercise.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Orange Police Explorer Advisor Det. Fernando Maldonado talks to Explorers about what they learned at the conclusion of a training exercise.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC