Photo by Jonathan Olivares.
Gavriela Ocampo joined the Hollenbeck police station’s Cadet Program at 14 because her mother thought she spent too much time with the wrong crowd.
This year, Ocampo, now17 and a commander, had the honor of reviewing more than 100 student cadets during a graduation ceremony at the Hollenbeck station. The graduates, dressed in navy shorts and white shirts, filed in single file into the small community room in the station as Ocampo shouted out directions.
Ocampo, small with alert and sure eyes, is one of about 550 cadets who graduate from the Cadet Academy each year and one of 13 commanders in the LAPD’s Cadet Program. Its purpose is to help youth develop good character, life skills and confidence.
“Since I never had that father figure, I would just try to look for attention, but not from my dad. [My mom] thought I was starting trouble, so she didn’t want me to be interacting with other types of people,” says Ocampo.
This year, the Hollenbeck station has 183 cadets: 141 who are returning cadets and 42 who are new. Eighty-eight are female, and 95 are male; 178 are Hispanic, and the rest are other ethnicities.
To become a cadet, each student must go the Cadet Academy. The Academy holds training sessions each Saturday for 18 weeks. New cadets have to arrive at the station at 5651 West Manchester Boulevard at 6:30 in the morning and train until 4:30 in the afternoon. Training includes physical workouts, such as running, push-ups and sit-ups, as well as classroom instruction. On Wednesday evenings, cadets go to the police station to exercise and occasionally listen to a speaker or go on field trips.
The Sheriff’s Department has a similar program, the Law Enforcement Explorer Program, which provides experiences that help youth determine if they would like to pursue careers in law enforcement.
Some cadets joined the program because of career interests. Eighteen-year-old Estefanie Jiménez has wanted to be a police officer since she was 12.
“I applied because I wanted to join LAPD, and I wanted some program to show me how it is and how to prepare for it,” explains Jiménez.
Jiménez attends Cal State Los Angeles and has been a part of the Cadet Program for last three years. Next year, she plans to join the Marine Corps. Jiménez says she has always wanted a career in law enforcement. “I like the adrenaline that comes with it, the fact that you help the community and you’re putting your life at risk basically to try to prevent that for others,” Jiménez says.
The Cadet Program also helps students prepare for college. “We help them with that [college], whether it’s financial help through grants, scholarships or even how to fill out an application for college,” says Officer Nathan Ruvalcaba, one of the officers in charge of the Cadet Program.
Ruvalcaba added that the program’s ranking system gives cadets a chance to take a test to qualify for higher positions, bolstering their confidence and giving them more responsibility.
As part of the program, the cadets also receive school supplies, which is why they have gift bags in their hands on this Wednesday afternoon.
Ocampo says that the cadet program has changed her for the better. She has noticed that she is making better choices these days.
“I don’t have the same friends. Also, the people I interact with at the station, they’re more positive, they want careers. They know what they want for their future,” says Ocampo. She has also gained confidence and self-assurance, and it shows in the duties with which she is entrusted.
Once everyone is standing behind a chair, Ocampo shouts a command, and the cadets slam their hands on the chairs in unison. She issues another command, and the cadets put their hands on their sides. After three repetitions, the cadets sit. Initially, they fidget in their chairs, but when Ocampo tells them to sit still, they stop.
Some community members believe the discipline is good for the teens. “I believe teenagers should be disciplined,” says Monica Harmon, a local public safety advocate and LAPD volunteer. “If the teens in South LA who vandalized and broke car windows and windows of businesses had been been disciplined by their parents, it would not have happened,” says Harmon.
Skepticism from some
But others believe there are better alternatives for youth.
Leonardo Vilchis, 50, has lived in Boyle Heights for 27 years and is co-director of Unión de Vecinos, an organization that works in Boyle Heights to build a community network to improve the neighborhood conditions.
Vilchis is not convinced that a police program is a positive activity for the youth. He believes that some students may join the Cadet Program with the intention of helping the community, but that the police department’s main goal is to fight crime. “In this community, a lot of things tend to be not so black and white as the police see them, and there is very little understanding on some of the issues within the community,” says Vilchis.
Officer Ruvalcaba understands Vilchis’ concern, because his own experience with police as a teen was not positive. He remembers a particular time when he was pulled over for driving a car model that was commonly stolen. Ruvalcaba says the officer would not explain why he was pulled over.
“We as law enforcement officers tend not to explain ourselves a little bit better. I think we owe it to the community to tell them why we do things,” says Ruvalcaba.
LAPD receives grants to fund the program from the Ray Charles Foundation, which has donated $1 million, and the Los Angeles Police Foundation.
“At ease,” orders Officer Ruvalcaba, and the cadets shuffle in their seats to get comfortable and relax their shoulders. They focus their attention on Officer Ruvalcaba as he begins the meeting.
Relived of her duties, Ocampo quietly stands on the side of the room, her back straight as her eyes dart around the room, making sure that everything is in order. Slowly her eyes shift to the front of the room; she relaxes and gives her attention to the speaker.