Turning teens into police officers

Roberta Weintraub, a 77-year-old political activist and former president of the L.A. Unified School District Board of Education, has always had a soft spot for the men and women in blue.

“It’s a most wonderful career for young people today,” she said of entering the police force.

Founder of the nonprofit L.A. Police Academy Magnet School Program in 1997, Weintraub’s more recent endeavor bridges the gap between high school or early college and the Los Angeles Police Academy, which requires that entrants be at least 20 1/2 years old.

The result is the Police Orientation and Preparation Program (POPP), a school-to-work program that exposes Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) recruits to the physical demands and mental challenges of policing.

For participants in their late teens and early 20s, the day begins at 6 a.m. with physical training — climbing walls, jumping rope, running track — and continues with such courses as psychology, economics and biology. All the while, students rub shoulders with sergeants, lieutenants and cadets in the police force.

“We’re trying to find future officers,” said Weintraub, a philanthropist, civic leader and prominent member of Los Angeles’ Democratic community from Beverly Hills who is a main funder of the project.

POPP, the brainchild of Weintraub, represents a partnership between the LAPD, LAUSD and Los Angeles Community College District. According to its Web site, it is an “exploratory educational experience that places career-bound law enforcement in an LAPD training environment.” The two-year associate degree program takes place at the LAPD Ahmanson Recruit Training Center in Westchester, an official satellite location for West Los Angeles College.

POPP currently has 98 students enrolled who are between the ages of 17 to 21. Participants are high school seniors and college freshmen who took part in the L.A. Police Academy Magnet School Program, where the curriculum is developed for students interested in a career in law enforcement; participated in LAPD cadet programs at their middle schools and high schools; or who are the children of police officers. Applicants can also be “recommended by a law enforcement officer [or] other official who can vouch for your character and commitment to the law enforcement profession,” according to the Web site.

By obtaining their associate degree, POPP graduates are eligible for higher-paying jobs within the police force, which offers quality pension benefits, Weintraub said. Ultimately, POPP offers a path to middle-class jobs for children of lower-income families, and creates a “home-grown” Los Angeles police force that is made up of members of L.A. communities, she added.

The first program of POPP ended in June 2011, with graduates entering into jobs with the Culver City Police Department, the Transportation Security Administration, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, private security firms and elsewhere. Two students were awarded their associate degrees, and 18 students completed the two-year program and plan to take college classes to complete their associate degrees. Eighty-percent of students receive fee waivers and do not pay anything to participate in the program, according to poppartc.com. The cost of tuition for the entire program is $2,760.

For Weintraub, who has spent more than 30 years working in the Los Angeles educational world, involvement with POPP is the latest in a seasoned career. She began as an advocate who opposed forced busing within LAUSD during the early ’80s, favoring the preservation of neighborhood schools instead. 

For 14 years, from 1979 to 1993, she served on the LAUSD Board of Education and as the board’s president from 1979 to 1981 and again from 1988 to 1989.

Additionally, she wrote and produced the Emmy-winning “School Beat,” a public television talk show from 1985 to 1987.

“I’ve had a really interesting career,” Weintraub said during an interview at the Ahmanson Training Center.

All of this experience has helped with her more recent initiatives, POPP director Jeffrey Burgess said.

“She knows all the players in L.A. on a first-name basis. She just gets things done,” he said. “She sets her mind to something and it gets done. There’s no obstacle placed in her way that she can’t overcome.”

During the ’90s, Weintraub, who is a member of the Beverly Hills-based Temple of the Arts, began to demonstrate an interest in linking high school education with police work. With the support of then-Mayor Richard Riordan, she founded and became executive director of the nonprofit Los Angeles Police Academy Magnet School Program, which is implemented at high schools in Monroe, Dorsey, Wilson, San Pedro and Reseda. Offering a police officer-led high school curriculum, the program feeds into POPP, which functions as a “capstone program,” Burgess said.

PPOP began in fall 2009 as a sort of semester study-abroad program for high school seniors. As it became apparent that a program was needed to bridge the gap for 18-year-old high school graduates and 21-year-olds who were looking for jobs with the LAPD, POPP was expanded to become a full-time educational and recruitment program. As a bridge-the-gap program, POPP is useful at keeping 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds out of trouble — specifically from committing the type of mistakes with the law that would make them ineligible for joining the police force, Burgess said.

That’s exactly the case for POPP student Eduardo Serrano.

“On the weekends, instead of me going partying and having times with my friends, I decide to just work,” the 18-year-old said.

After he graduates POPP, Serrano will either transfer to a two-year program where he can earn a bachelor’s degree or he will join the Marine Corps.

POPP student Dalia Gonzales says that the program’s rigorousness “motivates me to stay in school, pursue my career and what I want to do.”

And what Gonzalez, 19, wants to do is eventually become a narcotics officer. She’s on her way. This month, she will finish her first year at POPP — two semesters of classes such as criminal investigation, psychology, police report writing and community relations.

“Courses like that are helping me prepare for what I am going to see when I am police officer,” Gonzalez said.

After she finishes PPOP and walks away with an associate degree, Gonzalez, who lives in Sylmar, plans to transfer to a college where she can earn a bachelor’s.

The program’s biggest fan still may be Weintraub. She said she has donated approximately $800,000 to fund POPP, pay for textbooks, chairs, computers and tutoring, she said. And she would like to see a school-to-work program that follows the POPP model but prepares students for jobs in City Hall.

Weintraub doesn’t mind that the program takes up so much of her time.

 “It’s a lot of work, but I’ve loved every minute of it,” she said.