Two police cars, lights flashing, race into a gravel-covered parking lot next to a rail yard in Georgetown, boxing in a small red coupe. A voice booms over the patrol car's PA system,
ordering the driver out of the car. A young man in a plain white T-shirt steps out. The arresting officers, guns pulled, order him to walk slowly toward the two patrol cars. When he gets close, one of the officers, dressed in SWAT-style fatigues, handcuffs him and pushes him to the ground. The young man in white grunts, then bursts into giggles. So does the crowd of teenagers who've gathered to watch the scene play out.
"All right, let's freeze it here," says Officer Martin Welte, who's also been observing. The four "cops," all teenagers, lower their guns and help the kid in the white T-shirt off the ground.
The seemingly tense situation that just unfolded is, in fact, anything but. The young men dressed in black fatigues aren't carrying real guns, and they certainly aren't real cops. They're part of SPD's Explorer program—a little-known, four-decades-old project that's like a Boy Scout troop for teenagers who want to be, or just play, cops.
The program—funded by the Seattle Police Foundation, a nonprofit that works closely with SPD—puts 14-to-21-year-old teens through several levels of training. While equipment and uniforms are provided free of charge, Explorers have to pay for their own name tags, handcuffs, and $2 meeting fee.
In the last year, local media, including The Stranger, have taken SPD to task over repeated misconduct allegations; the department has also had trouble attracting new recruits.
While kids aren't flocking to the Explorers program, it's still another recruiting pool the department can draw from—and has.
In many ways, it seems strange that such a program even exists—teenagers, practically by definition, aren't supposed to want to hang out with cops. But every other week, between 15 and 20 young men and women—the current class is predominantly white and male, save for one ex-cheerleader—show up to hear officers talk about life on the beat, learn tactical maneuvers and shoot guns with SWAT teams, and even run security or direct traffic at events such as Seafair.
Given the recent streak of misconduct allegations against SPD officers, the idea of the department indoctrinating young, impressionable recruits is a bit jarring. That could be why a number of the Explorers keep their affiliation with the group quiet.
Back at the fake traffic stop, Explorer Ben Frieler looks on as his classmates run through the traffic-stop drill. Frieler, 20, says he gets "a lot [of crap] when I talk about [the Explorers] to my friends," Frieler says. "Cops don't have the [best] reputation."
"I didn't tell my friends about [being in the Explorers] at first," says Jon Barber, a lanky 19-year-old with a crew cut. Barber, the Explorers' class clown, doesn't seem like the type to be shy about anything, but when asked why he's in the program, he clams up.
After a bit of prodding, Barber explains that he's following in the footsteps of his older brother, SPD officer Joselito Barber. The elder Barber had been out of the police academy just five months when he was killed in the line of duty, when a six-time felon ran a red light and plowed into his patrol car on 23rd Avenue and Yesler Way.
In its 40 years, the Explorers program has never had more than 10 to 20 participants. But Officer Hatzenbuehler says his small band of recruits take their work very seriously.
While Explorers aren't generally called on to help with police work—they don't actually have any police powers—Hatzenbuehler says one Explorer helped him bust an auto thief by text messaging with the suspect's friends to get more info about the case.
As Hatzenbuehler brags about the Explorers, the class spontaneously begins doing push-ups in unison. "I deal with kids out on the street and it's bad stuff," Hatzenbuehler says. "You come in here and it's a good group."