HPD Explorer program producing qualified cadets at high school level

Officers Ripley & Wooten with Zoe Shanley

The Houston Police Department has an unsung recruit program that easily yet effectively can take five or six years to produce a success story. It prepares high school students to become HPD officers by “starting early” with training in policing scenarios commonly seen in today’s cadet classes.

High school students may start at age 14 and continue until they are 21.

The program is called HPD Explorers. Participants are recruited from Houston area high schools. It goes without saying that the officers who serve as Explorer advisors believe each Explorer will qualify as an HPD cadet by the time they reach 16 or 17 years of age. By age 20 they easily would stand out at the Academy.

Success stories abound. Here’s the latest one.

Future HPD Cadets

Last year a team of HPD Explorers competed nationally in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. One female team member won first place in individual marksmanship using Glock pellet pistol), while a four-member HPD Explorer team brought home third place honors for its handling of a CIT scenario.

One member of that team, Yoselin Chavez, turned 21 since the competition and is a now member of HPD’s current academy class.

And the female winner of the marksmanship competition was Zoe Shanley, a Lone Star College student recruited out of Cypress Ranch High School. Shanley plans to get her degree from Texas State University.

And then?

“She wants to come to the academy,” Officer Thomas Wooten, Central’s Explorer advisor, told the Badge & Gun with a big smile on his face.

Wooten and Senior Police Officer George Guerrero, HPD’s Explorer coordinator, stress that this is what Explorers are all about – getting the early training they need to become police officers. The two officers readily admit that the program also prepares participants to enter the military, as several on Wooten’s watch have done recently.

Guerrero profiled the approximately 105-110 current Explorers as being half males and half females. They are spread out at “posts” at 11 different HPD locations, including Central and the Academy. Generally, they train once a week, usually after school.

Wooten reminded us of the fact that his Central teams meet at the HPOU location on State Street.

The entire program involves dozens of HPD officers interacting with Explorers, each offering the encouraging words that hopefully head them toward HPD cadet status.

Guerrero explained:

“Officers go out to these high schools and they recruit. Once in the program the Explorers also have to do community service such as volunteer at MADD events and the 911 Fun Run where they volunteer to set up chairs and go get snacks. They all get a lot of volunteer work in. They also learn the finer points of fundraising to help defray traveling expenses if necessary.

“Most of them train once a week, depending on their age. Some of them are 14 or 15. You can imagine how good they are by age 21. They can train as much as the advisor wants them to.

“If they have trouble with their schoolwork, we tell them to bring their work in and ‘we’ll help you with it.’ All officers are volunteers. They work their training sessions around their duty hours. For instance, an evening shift officer would train them during the daytime.

“The Explorers don’t necessarily have to go to the closest station. They can go where they want. It usually works out that way because officers go to the schools in their area.”

The best case in point for station choice is Officer Wooten. Two of his best students were from Cypress area schools, meaning the Explorers involved drove all the way from Cypress to HPOU for training sessions.

Both Guerrero and Wooten, as well as North Command advisor Officer Jacques Bland, exuded enthusiasm for the nature of the concept. Bland lamented the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic stunted the growth of the program, which usually numbered 110 to 120 participants annually. Today there are 100-105.

No Easy Go

Guerrero and Wooten were quizzed about the number of future HPD Academy classes they were currently training.

“Every one of them!” Guerrero responded.

“I’m getting them there as fast as I can!” Wooten asserted.

“That’s definitely the goal,” Guerrero said. “The Westside post has seven success stories over the last four or five years. They are not necessarily HPD, but other departments and the military. I ran the Central post in the 1990s. From that post we have a sergeant, a lieutenant from Stafford PD. That’s the whole goal: to use this as a recruiting tool.”

To cite a few individuals, Lt. Anthony Garcia serves Stafford PD. HPD Explorer alumni include Sgt. Shane Nash, Officer Sunil Parmar at Midwest and probationary Officer Karen Sanchez at Central.

It would seem that post advisors would put together an easy training curriculum to make the job training seem easy.

No, sir! Those are not the facts.

Guerrero, a 27-year HPD veteran, spent some years at the Academy conducting training in real-life policing scenarios initially developed in detail by now-retired Academy training officers Terry Bratton and Jim Conley – both of whom have sons currenting in HPD. Guerrero knows the finer points of his updated scenarios and said he and Explorer advisors conduct them as if they were training cadets in real Academy sessions.

The scenarios will ring familiar bells in the minds of all officers:

  • Active shooter
  • Hostage negotiation
  • Family disturbance
  • Crisis disturbances (suicides in progress, etc.)
  • Felony stops
  • Traffic stops
  • Building searches
  • Officer down

“There are really about 20 to 22 scenarios,” Guerrero explained. “We train them in each one.”

And, yes, this nationwide police-oriented program has local, state and national competitions held on a regular basis. Recall that HPD Explorers include the national marksmanship champion.

Great Cadet Candidates!

On the weekend of Feb.19, a department-wide competition was held at the Academy. Present to compete were 64 Explorers from most of the HPD station posts. Each competed and were judged by HPD officers on the actions these likely cadets took in realistic situations.

Overall, there were more than 60 HPD officers volunteering their time on a Saturday to be judges or actors needed for the scenarios.

Everybody was happy with the overall product of what we’re putting out,” Guerrero reported. “Some of the actors and judges were ready to take these Explorers out on the streets right now. They were that good.

Winners Miguel Diaz, Yoselin Chavez, Melanie Viesca, & Juan De La Rose

“Some of them, of course, still need a lot of work. That’s okay. They’ll have the time to get through.”

The top four teams didn’t win a trophy; they won a trip to Irving, the Dallas suburb, for further competition.

And those winners were:

First Place – Central Post (Three males and one female)

Second place – Academy Post (Three males and one female)

Third Place – Northeast Post (Three females and one male)

Fourth Place – Westside Post (Three females and one male)

Guerrero was encouraged by the apparent gender equality – eight males and eight females in the winning groups. He said, “Half and half is usually pretty accurate” and reflects the breakdown of current participants in the Explorer program.

Last November, an Explorer competition was held in Plano, north of Dallas, where the scenarios were as authentic as the real officers who were actors and judges could portray them. Four-member teams were put on a night shift patrolling the city of Plano. They had to handle a bomb threat, the burglary of a school and a robbery suspect they had to track down with a drone.

As you might expect, the HPD Explorers brought home a trophy.