By Dan Geringer
The Philadelphia Daily News
PHILADELPHIA - The teenagers came from cop families and from "don't snitch" families, from supportive and from broken homes - but when they slowly advanced down a hallway in a Philadelphia Police Academy training building, plastic guns drawn, protecting each other's backs while they searched the rooms for an "armed suspect," they were one team.
As they advanced, the diamond-shaped formation they were supposed to be moving in for self-protection became ragged, leaving the young wannabes vulnerable to ambush.
This did not please the man leading the diamond, Sergeant Derrick Bryant, a 19-year police veteran from North Philadelphia and an Army reservist since 1979, wearing the desert-camouflage fatigues he wore while recently serving in Iraq.
"A diamond!" Bryant shouted so sharply that the Explorers responded before his battlefield voice finished echoing down the hall. "Now move!"
"We don't put up with any nonsense here," said Sgt. Ed Timcho Jr., a warrant officer whose partner, Joseph LeClaire, was killed in Germantown in 2004 while serving a felony warrant for the First Judicial District.
"We're not a baby-sitting service," Timcho said. "The kids have to want to be here."
Like Timcho and Bryant, all of the police officers who teach the 50 Explorers volunteer their Saturdays and often weeks of their vacation time to give the 14-to-20-year-olds a realistic grounding in Police Academy training.
Under the supervision of Corporal Bryan Coyle, a 15-year police veteran whom every kid in the program calls the father figure who is "always there for me," the Explorers learn to fire weapons, conduct SWAT-team drug raids, investigate crime scenes, intervene in domestic disputes and take down dangerous suspects.
"They don't sugarcoat the training," said Timcho's son, Ed Timcho III, 17, a Northeast High student and a 4-year veteran Explorer whose dream is to be a SWAT-team medic.
"They treat you like an adult. This is paramilitary training that gives you an edge when you get on the job."
Timcho III, already a certified emergency medical technician who worked with a Philadelphia ambulance crew last summer, said that Explorers training "gave me the edge for experiencing things that the average 17-year-old would not see - drug overdoses, traffic accidents, strokes, heart attacks, D.O.A.s.
"I've been covered in feces and vomit from someone who overdosed on drugs," he said. "When my dad used to tell me about these things, I didn't believe him. Now, people ask what's the worst thing I've ever seen and when I tell them, they don't believe me."
Timcho III said he was hooked on law enforcement by "the adrenaline rush that can come upon you in a dangerous situation," but his father cautioned that controlling the adrenaline is crucial.
"Probation and parole violators are the worst to go after because they know when you catch them, they are going right back to prison for 5, 10 years," the senior Timcho said.
"Your heart feels like it's pumping out of your chest when you go through that door, but you can't get tunnel vision from an overload of adrenaline. You have to be under control."
Moments later, a young Explorer, holding a steel battering ram with the words "Knock Knock" on its business end, proved Timcho's point.
Leading his heavily-armed squad, the Explorer pounded on the suspect's front door, yelled, "Philadelphia Police! We have a warrant! Open up!" - then smashed the door open and rushed in still carrying the battering ram instead of stepping aside and letting his gun-toting partners confront the suspect.
Timcho pointed out the potentially fatal mistake. The Explorer blushed and got it right the next time.
Baby-faced but mature beyond their years, the middle- and high-school kids are reminded of the risk every time they practice car stops in a Police Academy area bordered by cherry trees - each tree with a plaque memorializing the life of a fallen police officer.
The Explorers worked the car stops - a dangerous part of a police officer's ordinary day - and Sgt. Bryant did not like what he saw from the partner standing on the passenger side who was covering the cop talking to the driver.
"Don't keep your hand on your pistol, folks," Bryant told the Explorers. "Makes you look scared." He did not have to say it again.
"The Police Explorers turns out a lot of good officers," said Bryant. "Just as importantly, it turns out a lot of decent, quality human beings."
"A lot of kids come here from broken homes and bad situations," said Police Graphic Artist Roderick Scratchard, a 28-year veteran whose sketches include the Center City Stalker and the Fairmount Park rapist.
"The Explorers gives those kids a pride that sometimes is missing when they first come here," Scratchard said.
"They've gone on to West Point, to all branches of the service, to the presidential honor guard and, of course, to the Police Academy.
"One young man, Maurice Robinson, had no way to pay for college on his own. When an Army recruiter asked him about leadership skills, he mentioned his years in the Police Explorers. The Army is now paying for his college education, after which he will serve as a 2nd Lieutenant."
Scratchard's son, rookie Police Officer Phillip Scratchard, 19, an Explorer since his sophomore year at Franklin Towne Charter School, graduated from the Police Academy last month and volunteers on his free Saturdays to help others follow in his footsteps.
"He's a rookie cop at 19, barely older than some of the Explorers," the elder Scratchard said proudly. "They give him that respect because he was an Explorer, and now he's a Philadelphia Police Officer. He made it."
At a recent training session, the younger Scratchard demonstrated baton takedowns on a dummy.
"You don't want to hit in the red vital areas," Scratchard said, lightly tapping the dummy's red-painted chest and groin. "Aim for the green - legs and arms."
Scratchard suddenly shouted at the dummy, "Stop! Get back!"
He paused briefly to give the "deranged man" time to respond, then struck the dummy's green knee with bone-breaking force.
After practicing on the dummy, the Explorers tried a live "deranged man," played by Sgt. Timcho wearing head-to-toe body armor and carrying a plastic spring water bottle that represented a glass beer bottle.
"Drop the bottle, sir!" an Explorer told the weaving, babbling Timcho.
"That's just my beer," Timcho said, advancing toward the Explorer. "Cost me two bucks."
"Drop the bottle, sir!" the Explorer repeated, raising his baton but hesitating to use it.
"What for? I only had two sips out of it," Timcho said, lurching dangerously close.
When the Explorer hit Timcho with the baton, much less convincingly than he had hit the dummy moments earlier, Timcho shouted, "Police brutality!" and lunged for the Explorer, who realized too late that he had lost his advantage.
When the Explorers worked in pairs, they counterattacked much more aggressively, raining blows on Timcho's head and groin until an instructor pointed out that those were the vital areas they were told to avoid.
"You learn how things can go bad in the blink of an eye during fights on the highway, car stops and domestic disturbances if you are not in control," young Scratchard told them.
Things can go bad when you're just hanging on the corner, too, said Jerry Merschen, a cable-TV installer in Northeast Philadelphia, who fervently added, "The Police Explorers saved my son's life."
His son Daniel, 18, an Explorer since his sophomore year at Archbishop Ryan High, is now in U.S. Marines boot camp.
"When he was 15, my kid was going down a road that wasn't a good road," Merschen said. "There's nothing about hanging out on the corner that's good.
"He was never arrested or anything like that, but I caught him and my wife caught him hanging with a lot of kids who were full of hopelessness, and that just breeds more hopelessness.
"When Danny went into the Explorers," Merschen said, "his pants were down, his baseball cap was crooked, his hair was long and he had an attitude like any other cocky 15-year-old kid.
"After nine months or so, his pants were pulled up, his chest was pulled out, his hair was short and his baseball cap was thrown away with the baggy clothes. His whole attitude changed. He's on the right track. He'll have a good life."
When he finishes serving in the Marines, Daniel wants to go to the Police Academy.
"He's dreamed about this since he was a kid," Merschen said. "But you can go down the wrong side of the line and break the law as a kid and never get to be a police officer. I believe the Police Explorers saved Danny's life by stopping him from going down that wrong side of the road."
Copyright 2007 Philadelphia Daily News
An inside look at Philadelphia's Explorer program