Let’s say you were to approach a teenager in greater Los Angeles and offer this deal:
How would you like to give up your Saturdays for the next 18 weeks, agree to do as you’re told without exception, attempt one physical and mental challenge after another, perform long hours of public service and not get a nickel for your time?
You wouldn’t expect many kids to volunteer, but they do. On Saturday, June 28, I went to the Galen Center at USC and watched 652 LAPD cadets file into the arena in crisp blue uniforms. It was the largest graduating class since the program began in 2007, and the cadets got a standing ovation from a crowd of several thousand.
The cadets, ages 14 to 20, completed courses on citizenship, leadership, financial literacy and other skills. They manned front desks at police stations, assisted officers on ride-alongs, handed out Christmas toys and worked on crowd control at the L.A. Marathon. Unlike the old Explorer program, which guided young folks into law enforcement, the cadet program aims to give teens a solid foundation for whatever careers they choose, with tutoring for those who need it and college scholarships for those who earn them.
The size of the crowd that turned out for the graduation surprised me until I started asking people in the audience why they were there. One of the missions of the cadet program is to build stronger community ties, so cadets were encouraged to invite not just family, but anyone who had been a positive influence.
Danny Herrera, a KIPP Academy teacher, was there for Cadet Maricruz Serrano of Boyle Heights.
Omar Ortiz and his family drove up from Wilmington to support graduate Nathaniel Licea, a neighbor.
Thomas Carey, vicar of the Church of the Epiphany in Lincoln Heights, came with church committee member Marcos Ramirez in support of cadets Erik Sanchez and Stephanie Hernandez. Carey said the cadet program appealed to a sense of service and idealism in both teens.
“What we see here,” Carey said, “is an expression of the web of support that exists in the community, which is a really beautiful thing and quite rare.”
So how has the program grown so dramatically?
The program was started during LAPD Chief Bill Bratton’s tenure, but it was current Chief Charlie Beck who saw the potential role cadets could fill in the department’s community policing strategy, which is about earning trust and building lasting relationships, particularly in underserved areas. He commissioned Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger and administrative assistant Natalie Torres to find ways to step up recruiting. Paysinger successfully sought donations to the nonprofit foundation that supports the program, with a $1.5-million grant coming from the Ray Charles Foundation.
Graduating classes have now tripled in size, and the ranks of cadets have swelled to 5,000 total, since the overwhelming majority continue serving after training. The best recruiters, Paysinger said, are the cadets themselves. The bulk of them come from tough neighborhoods and seem to hunger for something safe and constructive.
“We’d rather have them close to us than out there on the street,” said Paysinger. “Gang members don’t have trouble recruiting, so why should we?”
Nathaniel Licea, the graduate whose supporters at the Galen center included his neighbors — as well as two teachers and his principal from Port of Los Angeles High School — told me he’d thought about a career in law enforcement since he was 8, and watching peers make bad choices convinced him to become a cadet.
“I’ve had friends who were getting into trouble with the law, and I started seeing that when they’re older they’re going to have to worry about getting a job with this or that on their record,” said Licea. “So I stopped hanging out with them.”
Licea’s parents, Juan and Lily, were among more than 100 mothers and fathers who completed a tandem, eight-week course — the cadet parent academy.
“It allows you to learn so much about what teenagers are dealing with. Bullying, drugs, alcohol, bad influences, child abuse. You’re aware, and yet you’re unaware,” said Lily.
Juan Licea said he grew up in Carson watching some family members get drawn into gangs. His father allowed none of that, Licea said, encouraging him to first make something of himself, and then give back. Licea said he was pleased and proud to see his son carry the family tradition forward.
Laura Mendoza, a 2011 cadet graduate, and Danny Ruano, a 2010 grad, were both at this year’s graduation.
Mendoza, 19, said the discipline she learned in the cadet program helped her get accepted by UCLA, USC and UC Davis, among other colleges. She chose to attend Cal State Los Angeles for financial reasons and to build a schedule around caring for her elderly parents in Hollywood.
Ruano, 17, who lives in South Los Angeles, said he never wears red or blue, so he isn’t mistaken for a gang member, and he and his younger brother are not allowed out of the house after 4 p.m. because of neighborhood crime. When he wears his cadet uniform, he puts a jacket over it so he isn’t targeted.
“Growing up, my mindset was that I’m going to go to college, I’m going to succeed, and I’m going to get my family out of South Los Angeles,” said Ruano, who is about to start his first year at Norwich University in Vermont and wants to be a Marine and later join the LAPD.
In his address to graduating cadets at the Galen Center, Chief Beck said the program holds such promise that he wants to double the number of cadets in coming years, to 10,000 total.
To the graduates, he said:
“You are our future.”