Martin Curtis Kilpatrick, 17, a soft-spoken, clean-cut, respectable and respectful youth, does not look like the kind of person who would loom large in police news.

He looks, in fact, very much like the 59 other 15- to 21-year-olds who stood at attention in neat rows last Wednesday while Officer Fernando Martinez of the Montgomery County Police Department's Silver Spring station checked their shoes for shine and their shirts for wrinkles.

Kilpatrick, a member of the Montgomery County Police Law Enforcement Explorers program, had his moment in the limelight last month when, accompanied by two police officers in civilian dress, he went into 30 liquor stores and bars in the Rockville area to try to buy beer and wine. Police said 21 people from 21 establishments sold him liquor illegally (the drinking age in Maryland is 21), and they are scheduled to appear in court tomorrow to face charges of selling alcohol to a minor.

Some of the liquor store owners and clerks stung by the summonses and the scandal that followed the November liquor buys contended in interviews that police entrapped them. But for Kilpatrick, the weekend expedition was one of the more exciting exercises in the weekly training program Explorers go through, and another chance to see what police life is really about as he decides between a career in law enforcement and firefighting.

The Explorers are a nationwide volunteer network whose purpose is to give high school and college students a taste of a profession they think they might want to join. Montgomery County Police Cpl. George Ludington, program coordinator for the county, said there are more than 45,000 Explorers apprenticing with police departments across the nation. Other programs exist in this area in Rockville, Prince George's and Howard counties, Baltimore city and Baltimore County, and Alexandria and Fairfax County in Virginia.

On Wednesday nights, Montgomery County program participants meet for two hours of classroom activity at the Public Service Training Academy in Gaithersburg. Currently, 110 are registered for the program; about half are young women, Ludington said. All are required to attend classes as long as they are Explorers. If they miss four of the meetings a year without a good explanation they are dropped from the program.

Two-thirds of those who join stick it out, police spokesmen said, even after they discover that police life "is definitely not what you see on TV," in the words of Mike Moxley, 20, an Explorer who attends Montgomery College. Would-be Explorers must be at least 15 to join. They must be in school as long as they remain in the Explorers, and must leave when they turn 21.

Ludington said they spend eight volunteer hours a week, on average, performing clerical duties (there are no reserve officers in Montgomery to help with the chores) and helping police with crowd and traffic control. Explorers have no law enforcement powers and are not allowed to use weapons.

Some seem to come to the program with a combination of naivete and a longing for adventure. "I couldn't find sitting behind a desk fascinating," said William James, 20, a sophomore majoring in criminal justice at Montgomery College.

One of the first discoveries for the youths is that police life involves a lot of humdrum routine -- some of it sitting behind desks.

The Explorers who drop out usually do so in the first few weeks, said Officer Kirk Holub, one of the coordinators, who said he doesn't find the rate discouraging. "That's part of the point of the program," he said: "to give kids lots of exposure to the profession and see if it's for them or not."

Some Explorers are sons or brothers of police officers. Stuart Martinez, 19, a senior at Seneca High School, is the son of Fernando Martinez, a police officer who acts as a volunteer coordinator for the program. Stuart said that being an Explorer has helped him cope with worries about his father's dangerous job.

He said it also has changed some of the negative feelings he acquired about the profession when the family lived in New York City and his father was on the force there. Stuart said he found police in that area "nasty and brutal."

"When I joined the Explorers I was the type who ran around with long hair and didn't care much about anything," he said. "But being with the Explorers has really straightened me out. I've really learned to appreciate county cops. They are very respectful to the public and their appearance is nice."

Explorers say they also have to cope with an unfavorable attitude towards police common among their peers.

"There's a lot of pressure on these kids," said Officer Christine Cocuzzi, a volunteer teacher at the Wednesday night sessions, whom several youths addressed as "mom."

"Kids come up and tell them, 'Hey, I hear you're going out with the pigs.' You have to be sure of yourself to take it."

Explorers say they are happy to put up with the peer pressure. They don't mind the long hours of volunteer work and class time put in after school and in between the part-time jobs many hold. They don't object to the strict discipline demanded by the training officers and enforced by the Explorers' own hierarchy of "sergeants," "lieutenants" and "corporals."

The payoff is the adventure.

There are twice-a-month rides in patrol officers' cars -- during which the Explorers observe and help make out report sheets -- and opportunities to help with crowd control and supervision. The annual, crowded Montgomery County Fair is "the Number One event" Explorers look forward to, Kilpatrick said.There are also entertaining roleplaying sessions on Wednesday nights led by Martinez, whose impersonations of irate husbands and loopy drunks might win him a Tony on any other stage.

Marty Kilpatrick said the chance to go on a liquor store case was the biggest thrill so far. Officers Ludington and Holub, who recruited Kilpatrick for the task, said that Explorers were last used in a similar operation four years ago monitoring illegal sales of alcohol to minors.

Holub obtained parental consent for Kilpatrick and gave him his marching orders: "He told me to go into the stores and make a purchase -- and not to drink the evidence," Kilpatrick said.

"There were a couple of places where I really thought I was going to get jumped when they found out -- a couple of real dirt-crumb bars. But mostly [the owners or clerks] just sort of glared at me," Kilpatrick said.

As each transaction was completed, the officers, who were posing as a couple, identified themselves and issued a summons to the seller.

At last week's training session the Explorers gathered around Martinez for a radio drill in a basement mock-up of a typical county street, complete with a car, a phone booth, a mailbox and a bar with signs reading "Tuesday Ladies Night," and "Police Officers Welcome."

Explorers, the beginners in jeans and ski jackets, the veterans in blue Explorer uniforms, listened intently as Martinez talked about radio codes and classifications for misdemeanors and crimes.

Later, Martinez and Montgomery County Police Officer Nancy Olsen -- one of the six graduates of the Explorers now in police work in this area -- played out a typical domestic disturbance of the sort officers frequently are asked to mediate.

Two Explorers rushed onto the scene and tried to push the red-faced, screaming Martinez away from Olsen's car. "Brother," Martinez said afterward to Manuel Ayala, captain of the Explorers, "you could have been in trouble. Look at this," and he pulled out a make-believe gun.

"You mean you can pat somebody down even if you're not going to lock him up?" an Explorer asked.

It was trickier to learn the limits on a police officer's power. Ayala was told he shouldn't have tried to push Martinez away from the car.

"What did you charge?" Ayala was asked. "Assault and battery," the student replied.

Martinez looked incredulous. Ayala looked confused."Well..." he said. "She didn't want to be yelled at."

The incident, designed to help Explorers learn how to classify law enforcement situations, also had served to bring up the issue of violence and what part the Explorers expect it to play in their lives as future police officers. There was a pause as several considered, then evaded, the question.

"I don't think about it too much," said William James, who has decided to go into law enforcement. "I figure if you think about how many people's butts you're going to kick as a cop, you're pretty morbid, and not fit for the job."