In L.A., 44 cadets become cops


By Sandy Banks
Los Angeles Times

It had the hallmarks of a typical graduation ceremony – awards, speeches and hordes of excited families.

But these graduates were not in caps and gowns. They wore blue uniforms, white gloves and holstered guns.

And from my vantage point on the Police Academy lawn, the 44 cadets who graduated into the Los Angeles Police Department on Friday looked impressively tough – and impossibly young.

At the morning ceremony, I was invited to join the procession of officials passing down the row of cadets, checking the "function and lubrication" of each graduate's gun. But I looked past the Glocks and into their eyes, studying the name tags pinned to their chests.

Sosa and Singh, Doherty and DelGado, Maynard, Moya and Vaidhayakul.

I heard accents that tied some to foreign countries. And saw a hint of street swagger in some of their marches.

There were veterans with military ribbons. And diminutive women, hair tucked under their caps, with "Sharpshooter" badges.

Some came to the LAPD straight out of college. Others left careers to join: accountant, musician, locomotive conductor. One – the wife of a cop – was 34. A young man from Florida had just turned 21.

And for all we joke dismissively about the "melting pot," it was a pleasure to see, through their ranks, what our city – and our police force – has become.

None of this was lost on my host, Assistant LAPD Chief Earl Paysinger. He entered the academy in 1976 – before most of these recruits were born – when a class of 75 might have half a dozen Latinos and blacks.

That's not the only difference; it's not just about racial and ethnic change.

"In yesteryear the academy was all about the physical dimensions of policing – arrest and control, shootings, foot pursuits," Paysinger said. "Now there's this other part of the training that teaches our recruits how to deal with people on multiple levels."

That would explain the speeches I heard Friday morning.

Police Commissioner Anthony Pacheco opened his talk with a warning to the new graduates to "engage only in constitutional policing." He followed with a reminder they might land not just in the line of fire, but "at the intersection of serious social problems."

Paysinger encouraged them to "conduct yourself with dignity. . . . During every public contact you make, you are our ambassador."

Even cadet class President Jonathan Beal picked up the theme. "I want to live for more than a paycheck," he said. "I want my life to mean something beyond the mundane."

"That's part of the police book," Paysinger later joked. "You're supposed to say 'I want to help the public.' But – maybe more than ever before – these young people really believe it."

The attitude is both a result and a reflection of the department's evolution. And change, Pacheco and Paysinger told me, has been both top down and bottom up.

Chief William J. Bratton has embraced the concept of community policing, and surrounded himself with like-minded brass. Mid-level cops who didn't toe the line began being squeezed out by officers rising through the ranks with reform on their minds. Or, as Paysinger put it, "the Neanderthal, knuckle-draggers are going the way of the dodos in this department."

But the department still has work to do, mending fences in some neighborhoods. I could hear the residue of old attitudes in the banter of Friday's celebrations. A young white graduate was collecting congrats from a cadre of his former Marine buddies. One – a black guy in a suit and glitzy sunglasses – leaned in for a hug. "I'm proud of you man," he said. "But I'm not gonna be seen with you!"

It's clear the department is on the right track, if officers understand that "good police work is about understanding the human factor," Paysinger said.

That means it's OK if a recruit comes from a family that's poor, where mom was on welfare or junior was in jail. Or a neighborhood where the schools are no good and you have to work hard to stay out of a gang.

That's why cadet Jesse Browne's family celebrated with such whoops and leaps when his name was called Friday morning. He grew up in the apartment complex known as the Jungle, a dangerous enclave in the Crenshaw area notorious for violence and drug dealing.

His older sister told me she's proud that he made it onto the force, but not because of the gun or the badge or the uniform. "Because he worked so hard to stay out of trouble. For 28 years." And now he can help other kids steer clear.

And it's why LAPD Capt. Michelle Veenstra looked out over the crowd as the graduation ended and announced to the brothers and sisters and cousins and friends of the department's newly minted officers, "If any of you want to be a Los Angeles police officer, please stop on your way out at the recruitment table."

Copyright 2009 Los Angeles Times

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