Los Angeles – Four cadets were arrested as part of the Los Angeles Police Department‘s widening investigation into a group of teenagers who allegedly stole police cars — an embarrassing episode for the department that drew national headlines when it surfaced last week.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said at a Police Commission meeting Tuesday that the four cadets from the department’s 77th Street Division were arrested in connection with taking police vehicles or joyriding in them. That brings to seven the number of cadets who have now been arrested as part of the investigation. All but one were from the 77th Street station.
Those arrested range in age from 14 to 18, police said Tuesday. Beck initially said one of the cadets arrested was 20, but police have identified that cadet as Leonel Flores, an 18-year-old L.A. resident. The names of the other cadets apprehended have not been released because they are minors.
Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, Flores’ mother declined to say much about her son’s arrest, saying she was “very worried” about him, the cadet program and the station where he was assigned.
“I am confident my son is innocent,” Sonia Flores said. “We hope this situation is resolved quickly.”
Beck also said that investigators believe some of the cadets conducted at least one traffic stop in one of the stolen cruisers, gave the driver a warning and then let the motorist go. Investigators do not believe the cadets handcuffed, arrested or used force against the driver, he stressed, but the detention alone could bring additional criminal charges.
Sources who were not authorized to speak publicly about the case said the cadets pulled over a driver suspected of having expired tags.
The new details come as investigators continue to piece together events that unfolded a week ago, when three cadets were caught driving two of the stolen cars. The episode prompted serious questions about how a group of teenagers were allegedly able to steal police cars and items such as Tasers and police radios without anyone noticing.
A spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti on Tuesday called the incident “completely unacceptable.”
Along with the criminal investigation, the department is in the midst of what Beck has described as a “top to bottom” review of the long-esteemed cadet program as well as the internal systems the LAPD uses to track its equipment.
The chief cautioned that investigators were still interviewing cadets and may uncover additional wrongdoing.
“We are pressing forward with this to make sure that we find everybody involved,” he said.
The thefts were discovered a week ago when three of the cadets led LAPD officers on two pursuits that ended abruptly in separate crashes, police have said. Another LAPD cruiser — this one driven by an officer — also crashed during the chase, but no officers were injured.
The three teenagers were arrested. Detectives later discovered that the cadets had stolen a third police car along with a bulletproof vest, two stun guns and two police radios, Beck said last week.
No additional equipment was recovered during the most recent arrests, Beck said Tuesday. The department is conducting a citywide check to ensure all of its gear is accounted for.
One of the stolen vehicles may have been missing since late May, Beck said. Sources told The Times that one of the missing vehicles had 1,000 additional miles on its odometer.
LAPD investigators are focusing their inquiry on the 77th Street station, where most of the accused cadets worked. Beck told police commissioners Tuesday that there was “lax oversight of equipment” at the division, but he did not elaborate.
Later, the chief said he was referring to the station’s kit room, where officers check equipment in and out.
A police source, speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to talk about the case, said there weren’t enough officers at the 77th Street station to assign someone solely to the kit room.
On Tuesday, the union representing rank-and-file officers weighed in, saying that “inadequate kit room security” at LAPD stations was another consequence of having too few police officers working in the city.
“These types of catastrophes will continue unless bold action is taken,” the Los Angeles Police Protective League said in a statement.
Beck has suspended the cadet program at the 77th Street and Pacific divisions, where one of the arrested cadets was based. Captains are meeting one on one with every cadet at those divisions, Beck said, and will meet with parents as well.
The chief is planning to personally address the cadets at a graduation ceremony scheduled for Saturday. Beck said that he had told all cadets — even those who are not graduating — to attend.
Thousands of young people have participated in the LAPD’s cadet program over the years, and about 2,300 are currently enrolled. The program aims to foster strong relationships between the city’s youth and police and help teenagers develop life and leadership skills.
Cadets participate in an 18-week training program, after which they can be assigned to one of the city’s police stations. There, cadets can volunteer for a wide array of tasks, such as working community events or passing out fliers alerting residents about crime.
Beck and the city’s police commissioners emphasized their support for the program, saying the “very bad decisions” of a few teenagers should not detract from the other 2,300 involved.
”We need to do what we can to make sure incidents like this don’t happen again … but we also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here,” said Matt Johnson, the Police Commission’s president. “It’s a great program.”