Shaun Weatherford stood with a group of young men in a parking lot of the North Charleston Coliseum watching as a patrol car drove around a complicated course of traffic cones.
For Weatherford, a 20-year-old with the North Charleston Police Department’s Explorers program, Thursday’s event was part of his path to becoming a police officer. It was the latest of a series of competitions in a five-day conference for youth interested in a law enforcement career.
Despite nationwide tension fueled by shootings of police officers by civilians and of viral videos of police officers shooting civilians, Weatherford said he’s set on his career goals and wants to serve the community where he grew up.
“We all hope it’s just a period we’re working through,” said Weatherford, a captain in the Explorers. “I want to help citizens out. When you take that oath, you commit to it. As an officer you’re helping out total strangers no matter who it is.”
And Weatherford wasn’t alone. Each summer, police departments and sheriff’s offices across South Carolina send Explorers to the competition, which was hosted by the North Charleston Police Department for the first time this year. About 85 teens participated in the S.C. Association of Law Enforcement Explorers Competition.
The drills, which range from responding to shooting situations to conducting traffic stops, are all geared at giving youth an inside look into a law enforcement career and developing real-world policing skills.
“It’s based on what a regular, uniformed patrol officer would deal with on the street,” said David Thornburg, a master patrol officer and adviser for the police department’s Explorers.
Explorers from law enforcement agencies in North Charleston, Summerville, Pickens County, Charleston, Charleston County, Lexington County, Anderson County, Chapin, Goose Creek, Berkeley County and North Myrtle Beach participated, Weatherford said. An explorer post from Columbia, Tennessee, also took part.
North Charleston police Lt. Kathi Love said Explorers participate in six scenarios, two at night and four during the day. They also complete physical agility and firearms skills tests.
Competitions aside, police Explorers work with the department assisting at events, such as the Charleston Marathon, by directing traffic, Love said. They also participate in community events, such as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Joshua Watson, a 17-year-old North Charleston police Explorer, said being a part of the program has been an unforgettable experience.
“It’s helped me with a lot of things,” Watson said. “It’s helped with school. It helps [youth] straighten their attitude out.”
And for some at Thursday’s driving competition, their department’s police Explorers program has been a lifelong influence.
Dezmon Drayton, patrolman first class with the Summerville Police Department, recently took over as adviser for the department’s Explorers.
Drayton took his first steps toward becoming a police officer by entering that same program in 2006 when he was 14 years old.
Though the program is geared toward youth who want a career in law enforcement, the skills it teaches are universal, he said.
“It’s not just about law enforcement,” Drayton said. “It teaches kids about respect.”
Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.