Alberto Figueroa, 17, stands in his south side Milwaukee neighborhood where last October, he helped nab three criminals who were breaking into his neighbor’s home. Figueroa, graduated from St. Thomas More High School last Sunday, and plans to become a police officer. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)

When 17-year-old Alberto Figueroa noticed three strange men riding on bikes in his Milwaukee neighborhood one Saturday last October, he could have dismissed them as visitors and gone on his way, but he didn’t. Rather, he used the training he received from the Milwaukee Police Explorers Unit – an organization with which he had been involved for the past three years – to discover their true intentions.

“Being a block watch captain, I had never seen them before, so I kind of thought something was suspicious,” he said, retelling his story in one of the conference rooms at St. Thomas More High School only days before he was scheduled to graduate. “They were riding around my neighbor’s house across the street, so I was thinking something was really suspicious, so I called non-emergency and let them know that we have a couple guys riding bikes.”

The dispatcher let Figueroa know that their non-emergency units were unable to come to his neighborhood at that moment due to unavailability. It was then that he noticed a new twist in their pattern.

“I see them knocking on the door a couple times, but eventually all three of them just put on their hoodies and walked right in,” he said. “I immediately hung up from non-emergency, I called the emergency line (911) and told them there was a break-in in progress, and that I was a Milwaukee Police Explorer. I ran home really quick to tell my mom and then I grabbed one of my police shirts, to let them know I was with the Milwaukee police, and that I had my duty belt with me.” 

Before Figueroa had a chance to get outside, he noticed that the owners of the house had arrived home, unbeknownst to them that their house was in the process of being robbed. He went up to the family and let them know that there were three men in their house, and that he had called the police. Not wanting to wait, the neighbors went into the house, where a mere moment later all three men ran out and jumped on their bikes in an attempt to escape.

“Two went the other way of my direction, and one of them started to come toward me,” he said, using his hands to emphasize his words. “I said I was with the Milwaukee police (but) he kept going. I grabbed him, I tackled him off the bike, and I just held him down.”

“Most of it was instinct,” Figueroa, now 18, admitted in hindsight. “It was just my adrenaline was going, I had just seen something that was going on and I wanted to prevent it. But a lot of it was also training as well. We are trained to arrest somebody or use handcuffs, but he didn’t put up any struggle. He said he wasn’t even going to run from me, so I got most of his information and put him in handcuffs.” 

For his heroic actions, Figueroa was given the “Crime Prevention” award this past February at the Wisconsin Club, Milwaukee, an honor presented to him by Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. All in the name of duty, Figueroa said matter-of-factly. 

In 1999 the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department established the Milwaukee Police Explorer program. Through the guidance of sworn law enforcement officers, explorers between the ages of 14 to 21 learn the importance of responsibility, leadership and dedication to the community they serve and are introduced to the philosophy of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office.

In the 11 years it has been in existence, many young people have learned from some of Milwaukee’s law enforcement officials through a hands-on approach of arrest tactics, handcuff training, crowd control and more – scenarios that police officers deal with on a daily basis.

According to Figueroa, who meets for explorer training once every two weeks, participating in this program has helped him decide what he wants to do with his life, and more importantly, learn the tools to get there.

“I have my application in to be a police aide,” he explained about the title that will allow him to prepare to be a police officer in this apprentice-style program. “I will get my results when I get my final transcripts from Thomas More (high school), and the police aide (position) will reimburse me for (Milwaukee Area Technical College), and then once I get into the academy at 21, I’ll have five years to get the remainder of my credits.”

He plans to complete his degree in criminal justice at Marquette University.

“Coming to Thomas More – I came from a (Milwaukee public) middle school – what I like about Thomas More is that we do have our religion classes and because (of that) it helps me get a better relationship with God, I believe, because I’m able to pray openly, instead of an MPS school, where it’s prohibited and all that.

“I think just continuing to have faith is something that everybody needs,” he added. “I’m not trying to say it’s kind of hard for people to get, but it’s just that at Thomas More, you have that faith and you’re able to learn from it and understand it. It’s a better relationship with God here, I believe.”

Figueroa’s crime and justice teacher at St. Thomas More, Nic Kelly, said that Figueroa has what it takes to help curb crime in Milwaukee as a police officer.

“Alberto is a fantastic student,” Kelly said. “First of all, he’s very honorable, very trustworthy, hardworking kid, and his mind is just in the right place, his heart is just in the right place, in terms of wanting to help people, in terms of him wanting to have a career in law enforcement. He would be the ideal candidate for that type of position.”

In Kelly’s crime and justice class at St. Thomas More, students get their hands into all areas of law enforcement, including examination of various criminal cases, criminal profiling and crime research. According to Kelly, Figueroa was a natural.

“Outstanding student,” Kelly reiterated. “Strong drive, and he had a strong motivation to go above and beyond to find out more about crime and justice, and the whole law enforcement” area.