By Curt Yeomans
Richard Blackman has already mapped out his plans for a career in law enforcement. The 17-year-old senior at Jonesboro High School is a member of the Clayton County Police Department's Explorer post.
In February, Blackman will enlist in the Army National Guard, where he plans to be a military police officer. In the meantime, he plans to help out around Clayton County police headquarters. Eventually, Blackman said, he will pursue a career as an Immigration Customs Enforcement officer in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"I'm already learning a lot about the world of patrolling and law enforcement through the Explorers program," he said. "I just like the idea of protecting the county, and making folks feel safe in the community where they live."
This weekend, Blackman and 14 other members of the Clayton County Police Department's Explorer post have traveled to Gatlinburg, Tenn., to compete in the Northeast Georgia Boy Scout Council's Winterfest. More than 3,000 Explorers from across the Southeast are attending.
The competition began Friday with an opening dance, and a qualifying round for a talent show. The bulk of the competition will be held Saturday, involving such things as simulated bomb threats, a SWAT demonstration, uniform inspections and overseeing a crime scene.
"We only get to participate in seven categories, but we won't know what categories until we get there," said Lt. Tina Daniel, the Explorer post's advisor. "To prepare them for that uncertainty, I've broken them up into groups, so each Explorer is prepared to do two to three events."
The police department started the Explorer post in 2008, to give high school children a place to learn about law enforcement. The sheriff's department previously had an Explorer post, but it was disbanded during the administration of former Sheriff Victor Hill, Daniel said.
There are 19 youths in the group, although not all of them traveled to Gatlinburg. The students come from many of Clayton County's high schools, and one student is from Henry County's Luella High School in Locust Grove.
Daniel said the police department's goal is to break down barriers between officers and youths, and to teach the young people leadership skills.
"I'm building leaders, and they are going to take over this community some day," Daniel said. "So, if I can build productive citizens from these kids, then I've done my job."
The students have various reasons for joining the post. Some had relatives who were Explorers in the past. It is also a place to meet new people.
Jessica Nelson, 17, a senior at Luella High School, comes from a family of Explorers and public safety servants. Her older siblings were Explorers. Her mother, Lt. Charlotte Nelson, works in Clayton County's 911 center.
Nelson said joining the group has given her a new level of respect for police officers. "It's more than what we are led to believe, or what we see on TV," she said. "We think police only run around, but they have to learn how to clear a room, and the proper procedures for entering an unknown situation."
Other members, like Blackman, were drawn to the group because of the goal of pursuing a career in law enforcement.
Brittany Eason, 16, a junior at Forest Park High School, wants to do Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) work when she is older, and she sees the Explorer post as the first step in reaching her goal. "I like all of the activities we get to do here, because I get to experience how law enforcement works," Eason said. "It will help me on my resume, because I'll have more knowledge as I go to college."