Investigators are trying to determine what the teens were doing with the vehicles as well as where they went. Police said one of the cars went missing in late May. Detectives want to figure out whether the vehicle was stolen once or repeatedly taken and returned without detection, which would raise even greater concerns about how the LAPD tracks its cars.
Detectives are checking various cameras that read license plates around the Los Angeles area to see if the cruisers might have been logged and want to know when and where the cars were gassed up, according to multiple police sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details about the ongoing investigation.
Sources said police had checked the odometers of the cars and discovered that at least one had been driven a significant distance since it was last used for official business.
Department officials said the three cadets led officers on car chases through the streets of South L.A. on Wednesday in a pair of stolen police cruisers. The car chases ended in separate crashes.
The thefts and chases sparked an investigation that revealed some of the cadets may have also stolen a bulletproof vest, two stun guns and two police radios, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck told reporters this week.
Beck said the cadets may have been impersonating officers while driving the stolen cruisers, and he asked anyone living in Central and South Los Angeles or Inglewood who might have information to contact police.
Investigators also plan to examine the recovered stun guns. Data can be downloaded from the Tasers to show whether the devices were fired and if so, for how long. LAPD officials often look at such data when evaluating whether officers were justified in using force against someone.
Police, the sources said, already know the teens made several stops for gas, including at least one visit to a city-owned pump at City Hall East. The teens had cadet uniforms that had been altered to look more like real officers' uniforms, one of the sources said.
Detectives are also interviewing other cadets to better understand the motives of the three teens, another source said.
The teens — a 15-year-old, 16-year-old and 17-year-old who were not identified because they are minors — were arrested in connection with the theft of the cruisers and other LAPD property, Beck said. He added that all three were involved in the vehicle thefts but that it was not immediately clear which of them may have been involved in taking the other equipment.
The department became aware that two LAPD cruisers had gone missing around 5 p.m. Wednesday, resulting in an investigation that Beck said "almost immediately" focused on a 16-year-old female cadet assigned to the 77th Street Division after officials found video of the teen fueling the car at a city gas pump. About 9:30 p.m., two stolen cruisers were spotted near the 77th Street station.
A chase began after the drivers ignored officers' commands to pull over, Beck said. The stolen cars separated at some point, resulting in two chases that both ended in wrecks.
One cadet taken into custody was wearing a spare bulletproof vest used for training purposes, the chief said.
A third car had also been taken by the cadets, but it was quickly located near the 77th Street station, Beck said. Two Tasers and two police radios were also recovered during the investigation, he said.
Thousands of young people ages 13 to 20 have participated in the LAPD's cadet program over the years, and about 2,300 are currently enrolled. The goal is to foster relationships between the city's youth and police while helping participants develop skills that will aid them later in life.
Cadets participate in an 18-week academy training program, taking various classes while getting an introduction to police work. After completing their training, cadets can be assigned to one of the city's police stations, where they may volunteer for a wide array of tasks, such as working community events or passing out fliers alerting residents about crime.
Current and former cadets expressed disappointment and frustration Friday over the week's events, saying such behavior could damage the reputation of an important program.
"I think this is unfair — that the actions of a few cadets revolves around all of us," said Nebby Vartanyan, a 17-year-old cadet.
Vartanyan said he often thinks back to his 2014 graduation from the cadet leadership academy, a pivotal moment for the teenager.
"We held our right hands up and we swore to do what we think is right — even when things are difficult," he said. "Ever since then, I do everything that way."
Before Alfred Segura joined the program in eighth grade, he said, he struggled in school. Now, the 17-year-old is poised to study criminal justice at Cal State L.A. He credited the cadet program with teaching him discipline and respect. Had he not joined, Segura said, he does not think he would be attending the college.
Though he no longer participates in the program, Segura glances at his uniform from time to time as a reminder of what he can accomplish. He said he wants his younger cousins to join the program, but he worries that it might be shut down over the thefts. He called the cadets' actions "disrespectful to the cops."
Anthony Zepeda, 17, began the program when he was in seventh grade because it was an alternative to staying at home. The program gave him confidence, he said, and taught him to "always think before you act upon something."
Like others, Zepeda said he was surprised at the allegations against the cadets.
"That's not what we do," he said.
Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.
7:10 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction from current and former LAPD cadets, with minor rewriting throughout the story.
3:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the investigation.