Jeff Prater has been an Ellis County Sheriff Deputy for three years. He talked about the benefits of the Explorer program and his work in the county for this week's Behind the Badge. The Daily Light continues its weekly “Behind the Badge” series, to be published each Sunday, in an effort to get to know the officers that serve and protect us on a daily basis.
Tell me what you do for the Ellis County Sheriff’s Department.
I’m assigned to the training division and community services. So my primary job is to keep all of out deputies trained and to keep their TCOLE (Texas Commission on Law Enforcement) certifications up to date. In the community services aspect, I work with the Explorer program.
You originally worked in law enforcement in north Dallas. What brought you to Ellis County?
I had worked in north Dallas at the Coppell and Colony police departments for 12 years. For eight of those years, I was assigned to SWAT teams but provided law enforcement instruction whenever possible. I also had experience working in narcotics, undercover, street crimes, CID, patrol and criminal interdiction. My passion was teaching and training though, but it was tough to do because at that time there wasn’t a position dedicated for that. However, I did get to work with the Explorers program, which was really exciting. It was that combination of training and experience that made coming to the Ellis County Sheriff’s Department so exciting. Now I can mentor and train our younger officers.
When I was hired on in 2012 here with the Ellis County Sheriff’s department, we had about three Explorers, and the program was essentially collapsing, so in three years we’ve been able to really turn it around. We now have 18 kids in the program. You can join the program at the age of 14, and having completed the 8th grade, and can stay in the program up to the age of 21.
Over the past training cycle, officers are required to complete 40 hours of training. I’ve been fortunate enough to complete about 260 hours of training in that same period, so if I can bring one thing I’ve learned to a deputy, and it helps his or her ability to be a better law enforcement officer, then it’s certainly been worth the effort.
What are some of the techniques you’ve been able to bring back to the deputies here in Ellis County through this advanced training?
I just completed a round of active shooter training through Homeland Security and, given the growth of Ellis County and some of the similar situations around the country, this sort of training is essential in helping protect the people we serve. Ten years ago, things like this simply never happened. Now, unfortunately, it happens much too often. So things like active shooter situations or bomb threats are treated very seriously, because it’s our responsibility to make sure those kids are safe.
Ten years ago it was unheard of for officers to carry rifles or tourniquets, but unfortunately, times have changed and we’ve had to adapt our training and preparedness levels to match those threats.
Tell me about the community involvement and awareness programs ECSO is involved in?
The best thing we can do is to get out into the community and educate people about crime prevention and what to be cautious or aware of. The big thing we like to talk about here is, ‘If you see something, say something.’ If you see something suspicious in your neighborhood, tell us. Unfortunately, we as a department can’t be everywhere, but people in our neighborhoods and communities can, so it’s important that we work hand in hand with our citizens. If we don’t, we’re going to lose the battle, but if we work hand in hand, we’re going to win the war.
The easiest way I’ve been able to explain this to people as we participate in community programs is that ‘if it concerns you, it concerns us.’ So if we hear of some unusual activity in a neighborhood, and you let us know, you’re going to see a larger law enforcement presence in the area. And one thing criminals don’t like is to see an increased level of patrol or increased presence of police.
Tell me why the Explorers program is important and what the takeaway is for those kids who participate in it.
I was originally in retail sales, but my heart really wasn’t in it. The money was good, but I was at a point in my life where I wanted to make a difference. I’ve been working with the Explorers group in north Dallas, and now here in Ellis County for 10 years, and it as really been fulfilling. I’ve only had three years to work with the kids here in Ellis County, so they really haven’t reached the age where they’re moving on to college or the work force yet, but of the 10 kids that I worked with in the Coppell Explorers group, seven have completed college, two are still in college, three graduated at Texas A&M, two in the corps of cadets and three have gone on to become Eagle scouts. Late last year, one was hired by the FBI and one has turned in an application with the United States Air Marshall service. Three have gone on to become police officers and one is going through the process to be a state trooper.
So the takeaway is that while the Explorers provides the skills and education to become a law enforcement officer, it also provides some of the best leadership skills any young person can find. While some of our Explorers may decide that law enforcement isn’t for them, we’ve found out that the leadership skills they acquired as Explorers has been key to them becoming leaders in the business world and leaders in their community.
Just like any business, the best form of advertisement is by word of mouth. When people see our kids out doing positive things, that’s the best recruiting tool in the world. We’re involved in community service programs, flag presentations and ongoing training, so if a kid wants to be an Explorer with Waxahachie PD or Red Oak PD or Midlothian PD, who’s just getting their program up, we want them to do that. At the end of the day, we want them to get out and make a difference in the world. Be a positive influence on your peers and in your community.