Moments after graduating from the Los Angeles police academy Tuesday, Officer Woodrow Wheat recalled what first attracted him to policing.
You won’t be surprised.
“As a kid growing up, you always saw the patrol vehicles going lights and siren by your house,” he said, smiling. “I always saw that as a fun experience.”
The excitement together with the prospect of helping people in need attracted him to law enforcement, said Wheat, who grew up in Mar Vista. “We do help people - maybe people who can’t defend themselves.”
His brother is also an LAPD officer.
After six months in the academy, Wheat, 25, knows there’s a lot more to the job - especially these days. With angry protests over police shootings and the recent murder of two New York City officers, policing is under scrutiny.
“You are entering a period in law enforcement that is facing new and troubling challenges,” LAPD Assistant Chief Michael Moore told the recruit class of 23 men and women. “Many of us in this room believed that we had moved policing to further degrees of trust with the community.”
“But today we are seeing questions rise again,” Moore added. “They’re asking how we do our work.”
The LAPD is facing its own questions surrounding the fatal police shooting of Ezell Ford, Jr., 25, an unarmed African American man killed in August in South L.A.
Moore urged the new officers to respect the people they police and to focus on upholding the law. He also suggested they seek out people in the department who have been successful at building relationships in communities – something the LAPD was forced to do after the 1992 riots and federally mandated reforms.
“Model yourself after them,” he said.
Outside police headquarters after the graduation, Officer Uriel Torres stood with his family. They hugged him and took photos of Torres in his crisp new uniform.
“My mom is very supportive,” said Torres, who grew up in Huntington Park.
Torres, 25, is a featherweight professional boxer. He is confident he’ll be able to handle himself on the streets. “With my boxing, I know how to control myself so I don’t let my emotions take over.”
Neither Torres nor Wheat offered an opinion on the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri or Eric Garner in New York - both unarmed black men killed after confrontations over a minor crime.
But Wheat, who holds a sociology degree, spoke out on the hot topic of race and policing.
“There really isn’t an issue with race,” he said. “We deal with anybody who is not obeying the law.”
Torres agreed – but also acknowledged that a lot of Latinos and African Americans believe police officers target them. Its one reason he became a cop.
“I wanted to make a difference, and change the perception about police officers, being a male Hispanic,” he said. In addition, he hopes to steer kids away from gangs and onto a more productive path.
Both officers wore black bands across their badges, a sign of mourning for the New York officers who were murdered. Moore noted 114 police officers died in the line of duty in the U.S. this year. Three were LAPD officers.
“The danger is always going to be there,” Torres said. “Obviously there might be moments where we are the target.”
For the first year, rookie officers ride with training officers as part of their probation. Soon, they’ll get their first taste of the streets.
“I’m a little nervous, but I’m also excited,” Wheat said.
Both are well aware they’ll be under greater scrutiny – not just because the LAPD is rolling out new lapel cameras to monitor them, but also from the public.
“With everything in the news right now, there’s a lot going on,” Wheat said. “They’re definitely looking at everything that we do within the police service.”