Eduardo Serrano and Christina Barrientos make a presentation during an… (Christina House / For The…)
The subject of the morning class was criminal investigation, and there was no hesitation on the part of the 17-year-old when he was asked to stand and explain aggravated assault.
The boy related the story of how his father, estranged from his mother, had shown up at the house and begun pushing her around. He told of how police had come and explained to his mother the steps she would need to take to obtain a restraining order.
School was in session at the Los Angeles Police Department's Ahmanson Training Center in Westchester as high school seniors dressed in brown khaki trousers and blue uniform shirts kicked off another day in an unusual law enforcement training program called the Police Orientation Preparation Program.
The badges printed on their shirts bore the image of City Hall as well as the imprint of the sponsoring Los Angeles Unified School District, Los Angeles Community College District and the LAPD.
The teacher, Los Angeles Police Det. Steven J. Katz, reminded the students that a large amount of their work as future police officers would involve domestic violence cases.
"Friday and Saturday nights, a good part of your time will be spent on them. It's your job to find out who the primary aggressor was. You use your interview skills, you interview people separately. You want to get to the truth of the matter," he told the boy.
Turning to the other 47 students, he asked what the officers would have needed in order to arrest the boy's father if they had not been present to witness the incident themselves.
"Probable cause!" the youngsters shouted in unison.
The program allows 12th-grade pupils to earn their high school diplomas and work toward a college associate's degree as they prepare for a law enforcement career. Community college students in the program position themselves to enter the LAPD's training academy upon graduation.
Two graduates of the 4 1/2-year-old program have already joined the LAPD, finished six months of training at the department's regular police academy and gone on the job. Four other graduates who are under the mandatory minimum age of 20 1/2 for the academy have gone to work for other police departments.
One of the new LAPD officers is Mohammad Komeili, who is in his third month in the field in the LAPD's Northridge area. He said some of the material taught in the academy was simply a review for him because of the Westchester course. "I didn't struggle at all, while others in the class were failing," said Komeili, who turns 22 this month.
Police Sgt. John Amendola, the department's officer in charge of student training, said the program expects to have "10 more in the pipeline to take the police exam" next year. "We'll have 15 or 20 the year after that."
The training program, the only one of its type in the country, was started by former 14-year school board member Roberta Weintraub. It is a more rigorous spinoff of an introductory police academy magnet program operated at six Los Angeles high schools and middle schools. Weintraub raised the $1 million needed to start and equip the Westchester program and serves as executive director of a foundation that supports the schools' police magnet programs.
"The idea was to create a steady stream of potential officers," she said. "If we can get up to 25 new officers a year from this program, that's good. But I'd like to get to 50 a year."
About 120 seniors start out with a monthlong boot camp in the summer. The roster typically shrinks to about 100 by the time the fall school term starts.
Along with such classes as police administration, community relations and outdoor physical training, students also study English, psychology, writing and economics.
In Katz's criminal investigations course, he touches on such techniques as checking a suspect's social media usage.
"They'll tell you they're not gang members, but you call up Facebook and there you see them posing for photos in their gang apparel," he said.
He also has youngsters read PowerPoint presentations aloud to classmates. "I have you do public speaking because you're going to be testifying in court," he explained.
Although classes are conducted in a military-like fashion and instructors are addressed as "sir," there are light-hearted moments. When Dalia Gonzales got up to read her PowerPoint piece, another student commented: "Today's her birthday, sir!"
The 29-year law enforcement veteran grinned and asked how old she was. "I'm 19 today, sir!" said Gonzales. "Happy birthday!" he told her.
Others, like 20-year-old West Los Angeles College sophomore Luiz Ramirez, expect their transition from the program to the police academy to be seamless. "This is a similar setting to the police academy. There are actual LAPD recruits here in the next room over, in fact," said Michael Mejia, 17, a high school senior.
College student Alexis Albano, 19, aspires to become a canine officer. "I'm learning there's more to this than just hooking and booking," she said.
Some in the classes say their personal backgrounds will give them a leg up when they become police officers.
"I grew up in a horrible neighborhood that is known for its homicides and crimes," said Juan Gramajo, 19, of South Los Angeles.
"I've seen a lot of kids who are drug addicts. I know the game," he said. "I have self-confidence. I'm street smart."