HUNTINGTON BEACH — Just imagining the confrontation sends a chill through Tina Kilcullen. She is only four months into the police academy, but her mind has played out the scenario a dozen times.
The showdown is not in some dark alley, it is in her own station house. The foe is not a cold-eyed gangbanger or some kidnaper waving a gun, it is instead a compatriot. For Tina Kilcullen, the face of her fears is Mark Fuhrman.
"The thing I worry most about is getting in a department and encountering a guy like Fuhrman and then, as a rookie, going to a supervisor to complain about some 15-year guy," Kilcullen said. "There's a good chance I will encounter someone like that. Will anyone listen to me? I don't know. But I'd do it. Absolutely. No matter what happened."
For Kilcullen, 24, and many other police academy recruits, the vilification of former Los Angeles Detective Mark Fuhrman has left them confused, angry or searching for lessons amid the disgrace.
Taped interviews of Fuhrman describing racist thuggery and evidence-planting blared across the nation during O.J. Simpson's trial, and the words still echo through Orange County's three police academies, where a new generation of cops ponder their future on the streets.
"We are damaged as a law enforcement community," Kilcullen said during a break in her police academy classes at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, where she is working toward her goal of joining the Garden Grove department next year. "It makes our job even tougher. We're going to have to earn the respect of the community all over again. But I think we can."
The difficulty in that challenge may be overcoming the criticism and intense scrutiny that awaits young cops on the streets. Countywide, officers say they are encountering more insults and suspicion from the public, and videotaping officers in the field has become a mini-fad of sorts. "Police operate in a fishbowl," Garden Grove Police Chief Stanley L. Knee said. "And in my 26 years of service, the glass has never been clearer."
Cameron Knauerhaze, 20, can attest to that. He is only three months into the 11-month program at Golden West Police Academy, but his four years on patrol as a police cadet in Laguna Beach have given him a taste of the career and a glimpse of the public's harsher view of the uniform.
"It seems like people have lost respect for law enforcement," Knauerhaze said. "I understand why. When I heard about Fuhrman it even hurt me. It was like, 'This is what I'm stepping into?' I know people look at me and there's always that question: Is he a Fuhrman? Is he a racist? That's going to take a while to go away."
Fuhrman has not been the only black eye for law enforcement. It has been more than four years since motorist Rodney G. King was pulled from his car and beaten by a circle of Los Angeles cops, but the reverberations of that videotaped incident are still felt.
More recently, residents in major cities across the nation have been forced to eye their protectors more warily. In Philadelphia, six rogue officers pleaded guilty to corruption, and now hundreds of convictions in their cases might be overturned. In New Orleans, two officers face possible death penalties in unrelated homicide cases, while in New York dozens of police officers have been charged since 1994 in drug, extortion and assault cases.
Los Alamitos Police Capt. Mike Sellers said that although those high-profile cases have battered the public perception of law enforcement, it's difficult to gauge their effect on the mind-set of new police officers and recruits.
"They've been shocked by it," Sellers said. "Some, I'm sure, are confused by it. But I think a lot of it could make them stronger, better cops."
For 19 years, Sellers has taught recruits at Southern California police academies and watched as the region's growth, the economy, shrinking government budgets and the downsizing of the military have affected the size and quality of the candidate pool for entry-level police jobs.
There are few new jobs now, especially in the wake of the Orange County bankruptcy, but Sellers said he thinks the caliber of the police recruits is higher than ever. And, he said, one thing remains unchanged: the motives of the would-be cops.
"They are dedicated to serve," said Sellers, who estimates he has taught about 4,000 recruits. "That is what drives them. I thought it was a great job when I came into it, and I still think it's a great job. The key is [to] adapt to change."
Entry-level officers can expect to make $36,000 to $42,000 at Orange County agencies, according to Don Blankenship, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Assn. Is the job worth it? "In days past I would have said yes, but there's been a total breakdown of respect for cops," Blankenship said.