C.F. had always dreamed of becoming a cop, like his older brother. So when he was 14, he joined what’s called a Law Enforcement Explorers program, which gives kids the opportunity to learn the ropes of law enforcement — and the possibility of a job at the end of it.
The national program, which has been around since 1973, teaches aspiring cops between the ages of 14 and 21 the nuts and bolts of routine police work, like making reports, crime scene investigations, hostage negotiations, and crowd control.
Eight years after he entered the Explorers program with the Louisville Police Department in Kentucky, C.F. is embroiled in a lawsuit against officers who were supposed to be his mentors but instead are accused of repeatedly sexually abusing him, including unwanted touching, harassment, and rape.
“It pushed me away from law enforcement. I didn’t want any part of it,” C.F. told VICE News. “Seeing how far this was covered up — I didn’t trust police officers for quite some time.”
C.F. is one of seven plaintiffs — five male and two female — in separate state and federal cases against former Louisville Police officers Kenneth Betts and Brandon Wood. Betts and Wood pleaded guilty to federal child pornography and enticement charges earlier this year. On Friday, Betts is expected to be sentenced on federal charges and plead guilty to state sodomy charges, according Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Annie O'Connell. Wood’s federal sentencing is slated for May 28.
As a result of the lawsuits, the Louisville Police Explorer program was disbanded in 2017. But it was just one of hundreds of similar programs nationwide operated by Learning for Life Inc., a subsidiary of the Boy Scouts of America.
Like the Boy Scouts, which was recently forced to admit that thousands of its leaders had abused scouts, Police Explorer programs nationwide have been plagued by years of allegations of harassment and assault. C.F. is one of at least 195 former “Explorers” who have come forward since the 1970s to say they were sexually abused by adult officers.
“There’s two places I’d never send my kid: Catholic school and Police Explorer programs”
Both the Boy Scouts and Explorers programs have adhered to the “two-deep leadership” policy since 1987, which requires that two adults be present with participants at all times. But there’s one aspect of police work that has left participants in the program vulnerable: ride-alongs, where teens accompany cops in their patrol car to get a firsthand experience of daily police work.
The ride-alongs put a young Explorer and an officer alone together, often for long periods of time. Young Explorers have also reported abuse during camping trips organized by their police department, and on trips to Learning for Life’s annual explorer convention.
“There’s two places I’d never send my kid: Catholic school and Police Explorer programs,” said former police officer Phil Stinson, now a criminologist at Bowling Green State University and a national expert in police misconduct.”
“We were outraged”
Over the years, Learning for Life has drawn up policies designed to protect teenagers from abuse — like prohibiting one-on-one contact between adult leaders and Explorers — but leave oversight of those policies up to the individual departments.
“We are outraged there have been times when Explorers were abused and we sincerely apologize to them and to their families,” Learning for Life and Exploring National Director Diane Thornton said in a statement to VICE News. “We believe victims, and we pay for unlimited counseling for victims and their families.”
Lawyers representing the victims in Louisville say that Learning for Life, as well as the now-retired Louisville Police Chief Curtis Flaherty and the city of Louisville, were complicit in their abuse, going so far as to accuse the police department of a cover-up. In 2017, Louisville’s mayor hired a former U.S. Attorney to conduct an independent investigation, which concluded in 2018 that the Louisville Police Department failed to appropriately investigate allegations of abuse but found “no orchestrated effort to cover up misconduct.”
Mayor Greg Fischer said he was “deeply angry about the disturbing allegations” in the report. “It is also clear that mistakes were made and must be addressed,” he said.
There have been at least 150 allegations of sex abuse in police Explorer programs since it began 40 years ago. An investigation by Kentucky’s Courier-Journal found that at least 137 female and 26 male Explorers reported being sexually abused since 1973, based on local news reports and court filings. The abuse seems to have been national: 129 officers across 66 Explorer programs in 28 states were accused.
Some of the officers involved have gone to jail, and other cases have resulted in big settlements.
In October 2018, the city of Irwindale, California, settled a lawsuit with three women who were sexually abused by their police Exploring supervisor for $4 million — the largest known settlement awarded in an Explorer case to date. The former officer who abused the women spent three years in prison and is now a registered sex offender.
An officer who was an adviser in the police Explorer program in Cherry Valley, Illinois, allegedly had sex with a 17-year-old girl during police ride-alongs and was charged with five counts of sexual assault of a minor in February 2018.
The number of police Explorer abuse cases compiled by the Courier-Journal is relatively small compared to the tens of thousands of teens who’ve gone through the hundreds of police Explorer programs around the country. But Michael T. Pfau, a Seattle-based lawyer who has handled sex abuse cases involving the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church and the Boy Scouts of America, says the real number of abuses in the program is likely far higher because many cases go unreported.
“They’re working with officers, who are in a unique position of power”
“I think you can say from the numbers we know of that there’s an institutional problem with abuse,” said Pfau.
Research has shown only about a third of child sex abuse survivors actually report what happened, and when they do, they come forward at an average age of 52. And in the case of police Explorers, Pfau says there are plenty of reasons why survivors might be wary of coming forward.
“They’re working with officers, who are in a unique position of power,” said Pfau. “And the officers hold such a position of trust in the eyes of the parents [that] children are probably more vulnerable because the parents would never expect anything was going on.”
“I never wanted to come forward”
For years, C.F. said he tried to keep what happened to him a secret.
“I never wanted to come forward with this because I was scared of what would happen,” he said. “I didn’t know if people would believe me, if I’d be humiliated when it got into the news.”
He entered the program in 2011 at age 14. For the first year, C.F said, the officers paid little attention to him. Then things changed.
Kenneth Betts, who joined the Louisville Police Department as a recruit in February 2006, was an adviser in the Explorer program at the time. Out of nowhere, C.F. said, Betts began extending personal invitations to join him on ride-alongs — which are considered a coveted and exciting aspect of police work and often used to reward good behavior.
C.F. said he felt special, like it meant he was doing a good job. After that, things started to escalate. First they were texting back and forth, and then Betts started asking for nude pictures.
“He’d be asking casually, saying, ‘If you send this to me, then I’ll make sure you’re in a good spot for being promoted’,” C.F. said. “If I didn’t do what he was asking, I felt like I’d be letting him down. I had grown to trust him. I didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. I was young, and I didn’t know much about the laws and all that.”
One evening in 2013, C.F. was hanging out with another teen in the program — identified in the documents as “N.C.” — when Betts texted them and asked for their help moving files from the police station to his house.
When they got to Betts’ house, C.F. said, Betts started to touch him and kiss N.C.
“I didn’t know what to do,” C.F. recalled. “That’s when I started drinking alcohol. He told me that there was alcohol in the fridge. So I started drinking it.”
“He told us not to talk about it. And it was something we never wanted to talk about”
C.F. said that Betts took them into his room and pushed them onto the bed. “He was doing most of the stuff to the other Explorer. He started giving me oral sex. He penetrated me,” said C.F. “Then everything kind of settled down, he told us not to talk about it. And it was something we never wanted to talk about.”
Betts has pleaded guilty to federal charges of child pornography, enticement, and attempted enticement. He’s expected to plead guilty on Friday to state charges of sodomy in the first and third degrees, according to a Jefferson Circuit Court order handed down in March. Sodomy in the first degree is considered a Class B felony, and carries a 10-to-20-year prison sentence.
The only person C.F. confided in was Brandon Wood, the other officer leading the Explorer program, whom he considered a close friend. It wasn’t until July 2018, months after the initial lawsuit had been filed, that C.F. admitted to his lawyers that Wood — first his confidant — later abused him as well.
“Brandon knew what was happening when I came to tell him about Kenny [Betts],” C.F. said. “From there, he sort of swept in under the rug. He ended up making me do stuff.”
Attorneys filed a motion to amend C.F.’s complaint accordingly.
“C.F. considers Defendant Brandon Wood a friend and therefore struggled with coming forward in not wanting Defendant Wood to get in trouble,” lawyers wrote. “It is not uncommon for child sexual abuse victims to want to protect their perpetrators due to the complicated relationship the abuser and the abused form.”
Wood had pleaded guilty to federal charges of attempted enticement and has so far been indicted on seven counts of sexual abuse involving one juvenile victim.
New rules for mentors
Learning for Life has continued to tweak its policy in response to mounting abuse allegations, but it insists the onus is on police departments to implement those policies. Some experts agree.
“All too often, police chiefs and police agencies are completely unfamiliar with Learning for Life Inc.,” said Jeff Noble, a former deputy police chief with Irvine Police Department, California, and a former expert witness in a number of police Explorer abuse cases. “‘They’re unfamiliar with the documents they signed when they created Explorer programs. They don’t adhere to basic principles, like no one-on-one contact.”
In 2002, Learning for Life rolled out a new policy explicitly barring sexual relations between officers and Explorers. They’ve also drawn up policies to help police departments improve oversight of Explorer programs.
For example, when police departments charter an Explorer program, they have to agree to certain terms, like selecting and screening a minimum of four adults to supervise.
In 2010, Learning for Life abruptly introduced a new “Exploring Youth Protection” policy, which replaced the previous training standard. All adults involved in Explorer programs were required to undergo the new training immediately and renew their training certificate every two years.
Part of that was the “two-deep leadership” rule requiring two adult leaders be present for all trips and outings — including the annual Police Explorer conferences. They define an “outing” as a meeting that occurs at places other than the usual group meeting location.
They also bar “one-on-one contact” between adults and Explorers, except during police ride-alongs. Law enforcement Explorer insurance policy prohibits Explorers under the age of 18 from participating in ride-alongs between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m..
Learning for Life Inc.’s safety brochure also contains a backgrounder on child molestation and abuse. “There are a lot of misleading ideas about who child molesters are. It used to be thought that they were easily spotted, as dirty old men, deviants, or guys in raincoats,” Learning for Life states. “We know that is not true. Very ordinary, upstanding, and well-respected individuals in positions of authority have been found to be child molesters.”
They also offer advice for what to do if an Explorer tells you that they’re being molested, and what you’re required to do by law.
But to lawyers who’ve worked Explorer abuse cases, Learning for Life doesn’t do enough to ensure its own rules are followed.
“Learning for Life are supposedly meant to be training the officers and putting the rules in place, doing some sort of monitoring to make sure the rules are being complied with,” said Tad Thomas, the lead attorney in the Louisville case. “That certainly wasn’t the case here.”
Cover: Louisville Metro Police car sits outside KFC Yum Center, home of the Louisville Cardinals basketball team on May 30, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)