I don’t wear a badge or carry a gun, but for two months I was able to talk with, travel with, and experience a lot of what it takes to be a member of one of the most elite law enforcement organizations in the world – the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
Through its Citizens Community Police Academy everyday people get to learn about what the LAPD does – from routine patrols to bomb squads to the aerial support (helicopters) functions – and what it takes to be an LAPD officer.
The LAPD citizen’s academy isn’t unique – other cities and municipalities have similar programs – but the LA academy is one of the most thorough. It can also provide guidance into full employment as an officer, or as an unpaid (but fully trained) reserve officer, a civilian volunteer, or a member of a civilian advisory board.
In this article I’m going to take you through the week-by-week program at the LAPD’s Citizen’s Academy.
There are about 40 of us in the training facility near L.A. International Airport. We’ve all been selected after a careful background check. Some of us are already involved in various LAPD activities, like Neighborhood Watch, while others are eager to learn. We are different ages, ethnicities, and come from various areas of the city – some of us are not even residents of L.A. but have expressed an interest and eagerness to learn how the LAPD works.
In this first three-hour session we are introduced to members of the LAPD, from commanders in charge of local police stations/divisions to our class coordinator – who we soon learn will be a sort of “den mother” to us although she is a uniformed officer.
Our first class deals with basic patrol procedures and the ranks and hierarchy of the police force. This is, after all, a military style of command and rank and placement are important in making sure all the “troops” recognize how the command structure works. For us civilians it is interesting to know who the “SLO” is in our neighborhood – meaning Senior Lead Officer – and what he or she does. We learn about the various “watch” schedules, what the police vehicle patrol procedures are (an the numbering system – no there is no “Adam 12”), and more.
In this class we learn about the laws and procedures that direct what and how the police conduct themselves and go about their work. We meet a detective who tells about the laws and constitutional framework in which the police must operate. Search and seizure, search warrants, probable cause, “incident to arrest,” and other terms are explained to us.
Next we start to get into some of the “nitty gritty” of police work. Another detective lectures us on how his Commercial Crimes Division works. He’s in charge of solving financial crimes, real estate crime/fraud, forgery, elder abuse, and identity theft. We learn, surprisingly, that only five percent of identity theft crimes (in this area) are ever solved – a sobering thought. The discussion is illuminating in many ways – did you know not to place your mail in the blue post office boxes located on street corners? According to our detective, the crime rate of crooks using metal poles and wires to pull mail out of mail boxes (especially at monthly bill paying time) is growing significantly. “I never use a mail box,” he proclaims.
This week we’re briefed on what traffic officers do. We all cringe a little because who hasn’t been stopped for a traffic infraction. But the discussion goes beyond ticketing traffic scofflaws. We’re also given detailed information about pursuit policies – when and how will police initiate and maintain a high-speed chase. In Los Angeles, the pursuit policies are very strict, with public safety an uppermost concern. With the help of its large helicopter/air support unit, which we’ll visit later in the course, the necessity for high-speed chases is minimized.
In the last half of this class we are brought into the world of domestic violence and major assault cases. In often gruesome details we are told of what people – who presumably once had or may still say they have strong feelings for each other – will do to one another in the heat of the moment. We all promise to go home and tell our spouse or significant other how much we love them.
Watch any television program involving law enforcement and nine out of 10 times the Internal Affairs Unit will be made out to be the ‘bad guy,’ loathed by all in uniform and everyone else. But, that’s not the case by any means.
In this week’s class we are introduced to a member of the LAPD’s Professional Standards Department, i.e. internal affairs. We’re told that in any given year there are more than 4,000 complaints filed against officers in L.A. While only about 10 percent of the claims are sustained, keeping officers aware of how their actions reflect on themselves, the department and the city is important, not to mention the cost of wrong doing in terms of court decisions and the city’s budget.
There are 10 types of complaint allegations that can warrant an internal affairs review. These are unauthorized tactics, lying to a supervisor, violation of policies and rules, biased policing, unlawful searches, false imprisonment, unauthorized force, unbecoming conduct, being discourteous, and neglect of duty. It’s the job of internal affairs to keep all sworn personal in the department in line, on their toes, and maintaining the highest standards.
Road Trip! The citizen’s academy participants are eager to hit the road and visit some of the locations in the city where elements of the LAPD work to serve and help its residents.
The first outing is a visit to the city’s 911 center. It’s a new and state of the art facility located in downtown Los Angeles (a second center is located in the San Fernando Valley). There are more than three million 911 calls made to the centers each year. Unfortunately, 70 percent of the calls shouldn’t have been made – they are non-emergency. That costs the city in terms of time wasted and money as personnel spend time dealing with calls that should have been to other help-lines the city maintains, or that are available through other agencies.
We’re taken to the heart and center of the 911 operations. A large, cavernous room is stocked with about two dozen stations (some for non-English calls) were 911 operators stare at several computer screens all at once – taking calls, keeping track of patrol units, dispatching them to an emergency, etc. It’s enough to keep our eyeballs bouncing from screen to screen and being amazed how the highly trained operators are able to juggle all the data at the same time.
We’re all eager for this week’s class. It’s the stuff every television police drama or movie deals with – homicide.
Tonight we learn about the things that happen on the street, in homes and elsewhere and how they differ greatly from what we’ve seen on the screen. It’s much less glamorous, it’s hard, plodding work and it involves a lot of skill and experience.
One detective keeps us glued to our seats as he takes us through several cases he’s been involved in. It’s amazing how much technology has come to play a major role in homicide detective work. The security cameras at a home or business location are sometimes the first and most important element. We also learn about the real life CSI people and how their work is critical to solving crimes.
If you’ve ever watched the television show Law and Order: Special Victims you’ll have an idea what the second part of tonight’s class is all about. However, what you see on the television screen is nothing like what occurs in real life. The officers in this unit are dealing with some of the most base, difficult, ugly and cruel matters in our society. What’s surprising to us is the sense of humor they maintain, a necessity they say if they are to keep themselves from being too seriously affected by what they see and have to deal with. Deviants, rapists, peeping toms, predators, abusers and others are the people these officers meet and deal with every day. California is also just one of four states in the nation that require convicted sex offenders to register as such for the rest of their lives and it’s these officers’ duty to follow up with these people.
The last item of the night deals with vice operations and we meet as engaging a trio of officers as you’ll ever see. They are not in uniforms. They are in their “grungies,” looking more like people of the street you might encounter if you were hanging around skid row or some other unsavory area. We are enthralled as the two male and one female officer describe their activities in addressing gambling, prostitution and alcohol violations (primarily liquor stores, bars and restaurants).
It’s time for another road trip and we’ve all been looking forward to this. We travel to downtown once again and wend our way into a huge facility that houses all sorts of city departments and service functions. At the very top of the building, overlooking most of the L.A. basin is the Air Support Division. We’re going to see police helicopters in action, talk to the pilots, see them land and take off, and learn how they do what they do.
You can tell the class is excited. Almost everyone has his or her cell phone or camera ready to record. And we’re not disappointed. After a presentation in the briefing room we’re taken out to the flight deck. By now it is night and the city is aglow with its typical array of homes, business, streets and freeways lit up. We see the two types of helicopters the LAPD uses and are able to get up close and personal to see each of them. Los Angeles has the largest police flight operation in the nation and it operates 24/7. It takes five years of training for an officer to be ready for flight operations and they’d better be really good before they are allowed to pilot these $2.4 million aircraft.
The highlight of the night is the class being “lit up” as an incoming copter spots us and shows what a criminal will feel like when he/she is discovered. Then it’s an exciting landing and take off sequence and if you’ve seen helicopters in flight and been amazed it is nothing compared to being a few feet away as these choppers come in over our heads and land. It took our breaths away.
We’re back at the training center again and this week we are informed about the LAPD’s counter-terrorism unit. Here agencies other than the LAPD, like the FBI, armed forces, customs, etc. work together to discover who might be in the city for purposes other than tourism. We learn what these officers look for, how they track suspicious people, how data is collected, what the signs of terrorist behavior might be, and how they go about getting the community involved in their work – the more eyes and ears the better. The motto of “if you see it say something” is repeated over and over.
Next we’re taken into the world of gangs. We all know gangs exist in our neighborhoods but tonight we’re given exacting detail of what gangs are where, what they do, and how they operate. We learn how gang members even when they are in prison are still running, and making lots of money from, their gangs.
Lastly, the bomb squad arrives. Now were taken into great detail about the nature – and high risk – of the bomb unit. Great videos show them in action, but better yet are the stories we’re told by the bomb squad officers of cases they were involved in and how the hair-raising nature of their work takes the greatest of skill, patience, will power and determination.
The course has been speeding along and tonight we board our bus once again and head to downtown and a tour/visit to the highly regarded L.A. Police Academy. Here Officer Steve Shyy tells us about weapons and tactics. Seeing all the firearms, learning how they work and how they are used (including non-lethal material such as tasers, bean bags and the like) is an eye-opener for all of us – even those of us who might already have some familiarity with weapons. We learn about the use of force policy – when an officer can and cannot use his/her gun.
Perhaps the most important lesson of the night – and the most exciting – is when we are taken to the gun/shooting simulation room. Just like all police officer recruits –who must pass this test or they won’t become officers – we are shown a video and using a computerized gun simulation device (it looks and feels like a real gun) some of us are asked to decide when to shoot and when not to shoot at a suspect. We urge our classmates to shoot and lament when they are “deceased” because they didn’t take action more quickly. But, the lesson learned is the high degree of judgment that must be exercised by officers when deadly force is considered. It’s not easy, no matter what you see on television or in movies.
Our course is nearing its end and tonight we are told about opportunities we may wish to avail ourselves to become officers, reserves, or volunteers in the LAPD.
Officers Davenport and Zehner, two young members of the department who look like they would be more at home working for Google, Facebook, or Twitter, also regale us in the second part of tonight’s activities. These are the guys who only recently were tasked with forming units in the LAPD who solve crimes, or help other police units with their work, by using their computer skills and understanding of social media. The Cyber Support Unit has only 10 officers working in it, but the unit has taken on a more and more critical level of importance in the LAPD and in other police agencies as well. It’s surprising how many criminals use social media to, for example, brag about their activities and thereby leave a wide open trail for police to follow.
Tonight is graduation day. Woo-hoo! The entire class is there with friends and relatives to receive our certificates, pose for photos with our area captains, and enjoy the potluck dinner.
There’s not a one of us that isn’t sad that the experience is over. We’ve learned a lot and we all feel like we want more. We may not all decide to join up as officers, but there’s not one of us who haven’t found the experience informative, exhilarating and exciting. I, for one, know that I’ll never see, meet or feel the same way about our police force and the brave and important work they do.