Officers With a Warranty : Rio Hondo Guarantees Its Police Cadets; No Charge for Retraining

Times Staff Writer

When the Rio Hondo Police Academy recently announced it would begin providing a limited warranty on its graduating officers, Assistant Dean Alex Pantaleoni said the joke that came to mind was, "Six months or six arrests--whichever comes first."

Although the idea may sound like a gimmick, Pantaleoni says it is a public pledge that none of California's other 33 police academies has been prepared to make.

"It's an announcement that we have reached a sophistication in our training that we are prepared to back our graduates 101%," said Pantaleoni, who runs the program for the Rio Hondo Community College District. "I don't know that there's too many educational institutions or public institutions that will do that."

The first guaranteed cadet class graduates July 31. If a law enforcement agency is dissatisfied with an officer in any of 580 performance areas, the academy will retrain that officer without charge for six months after graduation. An exception is made in firearms training, where the agency must pay for the cost of materials.

The warranty covers everything cadets are taught during the 16-week course, ranging from the history of law enforcement to vehicle search techniques to handling assault cases.

Pantaleoni, who has worked in the Rio Hondo police program for 24 years, pirated the idea from a newspaper story he read about a Midwestern high school that offered a similar warranty for English proficiency. He thought about the academy's computerized system that tracks cadets in those 580 performance objectives, and about its Learning Assistance Center where cadets are required to make up work in deficient areas.

He said he thought, "We really can guarantee this."

"They shouldn't get out--they can't get out--if they don't know this material," he said, pointing to a 187-page book detailing the academy's objectives.

Cadets say they take the warranty seriously and believe it makes them more marketable.

"They're saying, 'This person is a bona fide, certified good guy and has all the knowledge he should have,"' said George Schrader, who was sent to the academy by the City of South Gate. "It may be just a piece of paper, but I feel a little bit better behind it."

Many police departments also have probationary periods ranging from six months to 1 1/2 years, during which an officer can be fired without cause. Charles De Winter, a cadet who is to become a police officer for the City of Chino upon graduation, said the warranty may take a little pressure off rookie officers.

"It's good to know that if I didn't do the job right out in the field I could be retrained" instead of being terminated, De Winter said.

Higher Than State Standards

Pantaleoni said the academy can offer the warranty because its standards are higher than those required by the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).

George Williams, bureau chief of information services for POST, said he thinks Rio Hondo College is the first in California to offer a warranty, but he added that other academies have unspoken agreements with agencies under which retraining is available.

"What Rio Hondo is doing is doing it in a more formal fashion," Williams said. "It's a good idea."

The state requires cadets to achieve from 70% to 100% competency in the performance objectives, which are broken down into 12 principal categories. Some areas, such as when to use deadly force and the safe handling of firearms, require 100% competency, while other more academic areas, such as the laws of evidence, are less stringent. Cadets take exams every two weeks.

100% Completion Required

State requirements allow a cadet to have one chance to retake a failed exam and remain in the academy. But at Rio Hondo, any student who achieves less than 100% in any area is required to study the subject matter again in the Learning Assistance Center, regardless of whether the score satisfied the minimum state standards.

Students can study material on computer screens, review videotaped classroom lectures or read other reference materials available at the center. "I'd be kind of surprised and irritated if we do get somebody back," Pantaleoni said.

The warranty is only good for six months because law enforcement procedures can be altered each year by court decisions and bills passed by the Legislature.

If a cadet does have to be retrained, Pantaleoni anticipates it will be in the area of report writing, which he called the principal weakness in law enforcement today. An inaccurate or inadequate police report can prevent a prosecuting attorney from filing charges in a case, he said. But the academy also is prepared to retrain a cadet in any area, including deadly force.

250 Graduates a Year

The academy, nestled in the Whittier Hills next to Rio Hondo College, graduates about 250 officers each year who are hired by local, county and state law enforcement agencies. Cadets are instructed in the classroom, on an adjoining shooting range, in a gymnasium and during behind-the-wheel training in the academy's fleet of patrol cars. In addition to the basic police academy course, Rio Hondo offers two-week courses to upgrade the skills of already employed officers, a police reserve academy and courses for prospective security officers.

Of the 80 students accepted into each academy recruit class, 55 to 60 graduate, Pantaleoni said. The warranty was not intended as a recruiting device, because there already are more than 250 applicants for each of four or five classes conducted each year. But a copy of the warranty was included in the academy's schedule mailed last month to police agencies throughout the state.

"I've gotten calls from places like Redwood City and Merced, asking, 'Do you really do that?' " Pantaleoni said. "We're not looking for new business. We don't need it."

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