By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
The report that grew out of his online meanderings, "Police Sexual Abuse of Teenage Girls," co-authored by graduate student Dawn Irlbeck, uncovered a "disturbing pattern" of cops sexually exploiting female (and, to a lesser degree, male) Explorers.
Among the cases Walker highlighted was one from 1998 in Largo, Florida, in which an officer accused of having sex with a 16-year-old girl killed himself. "I'm not the only person who's having sex with a minor at the Police Department," the officer wrote in his suicide note. "They really need to tighten up the rules with those Explorers."
Largo's police chief initially dismissed claims of a wider scandal as groundless. But an outside investigator subsequently found that at least 11 Largo cops had had sex with Explorers, dating back to the late 1980s.
The following year, in Eureka, Missouri, Walker reported, an internal investigation was launched into two officers accused of having sex with a 16-year-old female Explorer whom they'd taken on ride-alongs. The investigating officer, evidently intent on re-enacting the crime, then took the girl on a ride-along of his own, during which he also had sex with her.
And in a case that came to light the year of Walker's report, David Kalish, who had risen to the rank of deputy chief of the LAPD, was accused of molesting at least six boys he'd supervised when they were LAPD Explorers in the 1970s. One accuser said Kalish had forced him to perform oral sex in his squad car while the two were in uniform.
In all, Walker listed 32 cases of police officers sexually exploiting Explorers, many involving multiple officers, multiple Explorers, or both. Many more cases had surely eluded his radar, he said, either because they were never reported, were hushed up, or simply didn't appear in his online searches.
After the Associated Press reported his findings, Walker used the ensuing attention to take police departments to task. Appearing on CNN in June 2003, he told a righteously outraged Bill Hemmer, "There appears to be a real pattern of abuse across the country. What I think it indicates is a failure of police departments to supervise these programs . . . and really investigate allegations of misconduct."
That evening, Anderson Cooper interviewed a 16-year-old former Explorer from San Diego who had been seduced by an officer she'd gone with on frequent ride-alongs. "I don't want to hear this ever happening again," "Jane" told Cooper, her face blurred to conceal her identity. "This wouldn't have happened if they would have done their jobs."
Spared from the public shaming was the organization charged with overseeing the program. In 1991, under fire for its long-standing policy of not allowing atheists, homosexuals, or girls among its ranks, the Boy Scouts spun off the Explorer program into a more-inclusive subsidiary it named Learning for Life. Scouting officials described the move as the natural evolution of a fast-growing segment of its organization that had aims separate from the core mission of instilling traditional values in American boys. Critics smelled a different plot: at once inoculating a popular program from the legal challenges besetting the Boy Scouts while providing political cover for the organization as a whole.
Whatever the motivations, it would take Learning for Life years to begin imposing Explorer safety standards on police departments. The organization's "Safety First" policy, with a blanket ban on fraternization between cops and Explorers and limits placed on ride-alongs, first appeared on Learning for Life's website in 2002. (Thornton says Learning for Life barred underage Explorers from going on overnight ride-alongs starting in the mid-1990s, declining to specify further. She refused to say whether its no-fraternization rule went into effect before 2002.) Learning for Life had all but ripped the weathered page from the Long Beach PD's manual—the same rules that, years earlier, Boy Scouts official Spindle had dismissed as unrealistic.
Summoning the courage to enforce the new rules would prove to be another matter.
* * *
As Walker broadcast his warning to the public, a 27-year-old cop two months into his career at the Bremerton, Oregon, Police Department was getting to know a shy, immature 19-year-old volunteering there as an Explorer. Over the following months, in the hours spent on ride-alongs in his squad car, Officer Kelly Meade and "Bethany" progressed in stages from flirty conversation to a stolen kiss to heavy petting. Eventually, they started having sex.
In February 2004, their passionate emails intercepted, they came clean to department investigators about their liaison. Bremerton's then-police chief, Robert Forbes, reprimanded Meade in writing that though Bethany was of age, the officer had brought shame upon himself, the department and the Explorer program by sleeping with her. "You were in a position of power and apparent, if not actual, authority," Forbes wrote, sparks all but flying from his keyboard. Bethany, he added, "continued to refer to you by your title as an officer, not by your first name."
Forbes then handed down a 10-day suspension without pay. Meade, claiming ignorance of the no-fraternization policy, filed an appeal. Bremerton's rule prohibiting outside relationships between cops and Explorers had been created just as Meade and Bethany were getting acquainted—after the supervisor in charge of the Explorers, having heard about Walker's report, decided to update the Explorer manual. But the same language never made it into the department's official rule book.