It must have felt like a fantasy to the Los Angeles Police Department brass as they waded into the sea of blue-uniformed teens swarming the breakfast buffet at the department's Ahmanson Training Center. There were "Yes, sirs" and "No, sirs" all around, and applause every time a police officer was introduced to the teenage crowd.
The occasion last week was the department's inaugural Youth Leadership Day, the brainchild of Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger, who sent 230 Police Explorer Scouts off for the day with 100 high-ranking officers to "heighten their sense of affiliation with the department."
Chief William J. Bratton, in his speech to the group, lightheartedly acknowledged the day's "propaganda" value. But it struck me as much more: a shift in perspective, akin to lighting a candle in the dark.
Paysinger said it best, as we surveyed the crowd: "There are 90,000 kids in the county who belong to gangs. But there are 2 million more who don't. They deserve to be celebrated."
Until last week, I didn't know much about Explorer Scouts. They were the teens doing crowd control at the neighborhood holiday parade and directing traffic at the local farmers market, service bars pinned to their neatly pressed shirts and police caps perched on child-sized heads.
The program is a junior version of the department, with an academy course, tactical training, fitness drills and promotional exams. Every division has a post, and most of the kids are minorities from the tougher parts of town.
For the department, it's a recruitment tool, a way to groom youths for law enforcement; safeguarding a pool of teens without bad attitudes or criminal records.
Teens like Natasha Ikejiri, a Granada Hills Charter High School senior whose Leadership Day jaunt was a ride on a fire boat with Police and Fire Department officers.
Natasha, 17, joined the Explorers with her two brothers George and Andrew -- they're triplets -- because her mother nagged her and the Devonshire Division post "needed more females. . . . I kept saying 'It's not for me. It's not for me,' " she recalled.
But in two years, she's risen through the ranks to become a lieutenant. "Now I'm giving orders to my brother," she said. This weekend, her squad competed in Pasadena against 24 other police departments and took first place in the obstacle course and a drill that involved subduing an "active shooter."
"That," she said, "was a real adrenaline rush." It makes up for scorn she sometimes gets from other teens, she told me. "They think if you're associated with the police, you're a traitor. It's not a cool thing to do."
And though Thursday morning was to celebrate the work the teens do, a message went out to the officers too: This is no easy walk for teens.
"There's a price they pay for putting on this uniform," Capt. Bob Green told his fellow commanders. "It alienates them from some of their peers. It's a sacrifice emotionally. And there's nothing worse for them than walking through our stations and being disrepected by officers" who don't acknowledge them.
That happened to him when he was an Explorer almost 35 years ago. "It tore my heart out," he said. "When you're shunned, don't give in," he told the Scouts. "The future of the LAPD is in the hands of kids like you."
The morning left me feeling good, not just about the city's teenagers but about the evolution of the Police Department too.
Six years ago, Chief Bratton's battle cry to frustrated, frightened parents was "Control your kids!" -- as if it were that simple to drive crime down.
Now, Bratton pushes the department "to look at the realities," said Capt. Eric Davis. "There are difficult issues that these kids face, and we're finding ways to connect them with help."
Part of it is the natural order of things. The department is becoming more diverse. "We're adding officers who grew up in these communities" and understand how easy it is to fail, Davis told me. "They recognize it, they identify with it, they've experienced it in their own families." Davis, commander of the Wilshire Division, took two Explorer Scouts out with him Thursday -- to a crime control meeting, a meeting with community members and a briefing on the Eastside by gang and narcotics officers.
When they finished he offered to take them out to eat and let them choose the restaurant.
They picked a pricey Chinese restaurant in West Los Angeles -- a long, freeway ride away during rush hour.
"One of the kids had been there before. But the other one . . . he clearly hadn't been in a restaurant before. He didn't know quite what to do when they handed him the menu, how to handle the ordering."
But he was a quick study. By the end of the meal, Davis said, "he was quite comfortable asking for that dessert menu."