Police officers are not always known to have the strongest relationship with local youth, but the Los Angeles Police Department is using recruitment as a tool to change that narrative.
Late last month, the LAPD graduated 652 cadets from ages 14 to 20, the largest graduating class since the program launched in 2007, the Los Angeles Times reports. Rather than guiding young people into law enforcement, the program includes courses ranging in topics including citizenship, leadership and financial literacy.
Students work in police stations, assist officers on ride-alongs and volunteer time at community events such as a Christmas toy drive and the L.A. Marathon.

“We’d rather have them close to us than out there on the street,” said LAPD Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger. “Gang members don’t have trouble recruiting, so why should we?”

The program, which began under former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton, recognizes the potential of using recruitment as a way to build trust between the community and the force in particularly underserved parts of the city.

With the help of $1.5-million grant from the Ray Charles Foundation and Paysinger’s organizing efforts, the LAPD revamped its community youth program to boast a roster to 5,000 cadets. Since its launch, graduating classes have tripled in size and an overwhelming majority have opted to continue to serve after training.

The key to the LAPD’s success is focusing on providing youth with assistance on whichever career path they choose instead of just recruiting for the force. Such help can include tutoring or college scholarships for cadets as well as an eight-week course for cadet parents.

“It allows you to learn so much about what teenagers are dealing with,” said Lily Licea, a cadet parent. “Bullying, drugs, bad influences, child abuse. You’re aware, and yet you’re unaware.”

Licea’s son, Nathaniel, is one of the hundreds of cadets who graduated last month. Since he was eight years old, he’s considered a future in law enforcement. Nathaniel grew up in the Carson community, watching family members make poor choices and join gangs — experiences that ultimately guided him to enrolling in the cadet program. His parents were joined by two of his teachers and his principal at Port of Los Angeles High School to watch Nathaniel graduate.

That’s another element of the program — the ability to invite not just family members to graduation, but any person who has been a positive influence —  furthering the element of strengthening ties to community and service.

“What we see here,” said Thomas Carey, a church vicar who came to support two other cadets, “is an expression of the web of support that exists in the community, which is really a beautiful thing and quite rare.”

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