Astrid Saenz wants to be a Los Angeles police officer one day, and as one of the most decorated cadets in the LAPD's signature youth program, she's already well on her way.
The 18-year-old has spent the last three years serving as a cadet in the Devonshire Division, where she says she's developed a respectful but friendly relationship with the officers who mentor her. While she makes judicious use of "sir" and "ma'am" when interacting with them, Saenz hopes they've earned each other's respect.
But as Saenz and hundreds of other cadets gathered for a graduation ceremony Saturday morning, they did so amid disturbing allegations about misconduct among some of their peers in the program.
Smiling in her light blue cadet uniform and perfectly pressed tie, Saenz spoke highly of an initiative she says has emboldened her hopes of entering the city's Police Academy. For every cadet accused of wrongdoing, she said, there are hundreds more who wear the uniform for the right reasons.
"We're not that," she said. "We're not those people."
Amid a widening scandal that has seen an LAPD officer arrested on suspicion of committing a sex crime and seven cadets accused of stealing police property, the department held its cadet graduation ceremony Saturday hoping to extol the virtues of a program that has mentored thousands of at-risk teenagers throughout Los Angeles.
Just two days after he placed handcuffs on LAPD Officer Robert Cain, who is accused of having sex with a 15-year-old cadet, Police Chief Charlie Beck delivered an emotional speech to the thousands assembled at USC's Galen Center, speaking with a tremor as his voice wavered between solemn and determined.
"These young people come into our lives, come into our facilities, come into our organization, as part of our family," Beck said to his officers. "And you will protect them like they are your own."
More than 450 cadets graduated at the ceremony, and roughly 1,275 cadets were in attendance, said Officer Aareon Jefferson, an LAPD spokesman. Marching in pairs through the Galen Center, cadets ages 13 to 20 moved swiftly toward Beck early Saturday morning, waiting to receive a slight head nod from the chief to show they had passed inspection.
Dramatic music blared overhead, and cadets could be seen laughing and joking with officers. The friendly and positive interactions marked the kind of trust-building the cadet program aims to achieve, standing in stark contrast to the troubling allegations that have surfaced in recent days.
Though he acknowledged that the graduation ceremony was a more solemn affair than usual, Beck still called on the cadets to celebrate their completion of an 18-week training course. He maintained that the initiative is a success that aims to improve the lives of those enrolled.
"Our goal is to make you the best human beings you can possibly be, to prepare you for what can be a difficult life," the chief said.
He also said he had full confidence that the cadets seated before him would uphold the virtues instilled in them by the LAPD.
"You wouldn't be in this program, you wouldn't have graduated, if you didn't know what the right thing was," he said, adding that the cadets represent "what Los Angeles will become."
The graduation ceremony came 10 days after a pair of car chases through South L.A. led to allegations that several cadets had stolen at least three LAPD cruisers and other supplies from the department.
An investigation into that incident turned up evidence leading to an allegation that Cain, 31, had engaged in an illegal sexual relationship with a 15-year-old cadet arrested in connection with the thefts, Beck said. Text messages between Cain and the victim allegedly revealed the relationship and also showed Cain probably knew of the thefts and may have even helped facilitate them, the chief said.
Cain, who has been with the LAPD for 10 years and was assigned to the 77th Street Division's equipment room, was arrested Thursday morning. Charges have yet to be filed and Cain remains free on bail, but he is scheduled to appear in court July 21. Until then, he remains assigned to his home, said Megan Aguilar, an LAPD spokeswoman.
Seven cadets have been arrested in connection with the thefts of vehicles and equipment. All but one was assigned to the 77th Street Division.
On Friday, sources told The Times that more than 100 firearms, including modified assault rifles and an inert grenade launcher, were seized during a search of Cain's Rancho Cucamonga home, the latest in a string of unsettling allegations linked to the cadet scandal.
Beck provided no updates about investigations into the cadet program or Cain on Saturday morning, only repeating his belief that the scandal is largely confined to the 77th Street Division.
The whirlwind week and a half has seen Beck repeatedly defend the program, which has been hailed by LAPD brass as one of the agency's most effective community initiatives.
Beck ordered a "top-to-bottom" review of the cadet program last week after the thefts were uncovered. On Friday, City Councilman Mitchell Englander introduced a motion calling for an audit of all of the LAPD's youth initiatives, including the cadet program, and raised questions about how the department supervises interactions between minors and the officers who mentor them.
The department does not have a written policy forbidding one-on-one interactions between adult officers and minor cadets of different genders, an LAPD spokesman said Friday.
Walter Carrero, a cadet sergeant for two years in the Southwest Division, said he was afraid of signing up for a "military-type" program at first, but now he regrets not joining sooner. The 17-year-old said he has built great relationships with community resource and youth services officers and counted volunteering at events at Dodger Stadium and the Hollywood Bowl among his favorite memories as a cadet.
But when asked about the recent scandal, he shook his head in disgust.
"I feel that they, you know, kind of messed it up for us," he said.
Jesse and Noehmi Rodriguez, a brother and sister who have been cadets at the Foothill Division for roughly a year, said the graduation was a special moment given the controversy. Some people, they said, were concerned the scandal might mark the end of the program. Nohemi said she was stirred by Beck's speech and hoped the event would make people focus on the positives of the program.
"I've never seen him like that," said Nohemi, 14. "It really did hit me. It hit a lot of us."
4:05 p.m.: This story was updated with additional comments from cadets and the LAPD.
12:25 p.m.: This story has been updated with more comments from Police Chief Charlie Beck.