by Max Zänker
photography by Reina Santa Cruz
An unusually warm and humid spring night has fallen over La Verne, covering the community like a black blanket. Only a few streetlights shine into the parking lot of the supermarket on Foothill Boulevard. Into this dark scene rolls a black pickup. Roger Montoya watches the scene from inside the store. The calendar on the wall of his office shows May 2000. As night manager, Montoya watches for shoplifters and troublemakers, his eye out for potential problems. The night has been quiet so far, and after the first three hours of his shift, Montoya yawns as he watches the security monitors.
Two young men get out of the truck in the shadowy parking lot, laughing and yelling as they enter the supermarket, and head for the food section. This night will not stay calm. Soon, Montoya will not be counting the minutes until he gets off. He will count the seconds until paramedics arrive to treat his bloodied colleagues.
After confronting the two men for shoplifting, as they brashly ate store food, Montoya went to fetch his hand cuffs while two co-workers held the men. Suddenly, a scream cuts hard into the monotony of canned muzak. “They got bats!” yells one of the employees. “I directly went to help them, but everything happened fast. It was a matter of brutal minutes; then they let off us and flew,” recalls the night manager.
Unlike his two co-workers, who went to the hospital with head trauma and serious neck and back injuries, Montoya was only lightly injured. But his impression of powerlessness lasted longer than any bruises. “I now have reserved feelings about night shifts. You never know what can happen,” Montoya says, explaining how the incident prompted him to sign up for the La Verne Police Department Citizens Academy. “I want to know what my possibilities are, and how I can protect myself in critical situations, like the one I experienced.”
It is for people like Montoya that the La Verne Police Department offers the Academy program twice a year. In its eighth year, participants learn all about police work, from criminal law to its practical application.
The citizens of La Verne are going back to school, and guess what, this time the teachers hand out the weapons and drugs. The class takes fingerprints to learn forensic examination, drills in weapon and drug identification, simulates a building raid and hones shooting skills on the firing range. Detective Ryan Smith sees the simulated building search as an important part of the training. “Participants experience the stress that policemen face in their work,” he explains. “So if you are facing a policeman in a stress-loaded situation like a building search, completely cooperate. It makes everything a lot easier.”
“Look up, look down, look behind and under everything,” briefs Smith to the class before the operation. “The bad guys can hide everywhere. Don’t hurry—the more you hurry, the more you get hurt.” With these words, Smith sends the class over to the University of La Verne International Student Center, where the trainees will pair up as partners. “Here’s the situation,” he explains. “The house owners are on vacation, and a neighbor saw the light of a flashlight inside. You are here to check if everything is all right.”
Equipped with heavy flashlights and intimidating water pistols, the wanna-be cops step to the door, knock loudly three times and yell, “Police! Open up!” Nobody answers. Just as they have been told, they knock again and yell, “LVPD! Open the door!” Silence.
They yell, “Police! We’re going in,” and open the door slowly. The entrance hall is dark, and the students turn on their flashlights to explore the room. Smith’s instructions rush through their minds. Just as told, they limit the use of their flashlights to avoid making their partner a target. “Close checked doors and turn the lights on. Seek cover and don’t make any noise,” runs through their minds.
The entrance hall seems to be clear; no subjects or obvious evidence. In the next room, the lights are on, and a woman is standing in the opposing door. “Freeze! Police,” yells one of the participants, threatening the potential burglar with his water gun. His partner seeks cover behind a desk, checking the room for further suspects.
“I’m the neighbor, I’ve been calling you,” the woman says. “Step to the wall, let me see your hands,” is the command as both partners enter the room. “Now show me your ID!” Suddenly, the sound of splashing water cuts the tension. One rookie cop takes a shot of cold water in the back of his knee. From under a desk, the ambushing burglar continues his liquid assault. Rapidly, the fake neighbor draws a gun and opens fire. Things get out of control. As the trainees are soaked in failure, a third suspect fires from the next room. Mission failed.
“You should not have entered the room to check the person but call her over to your secured area,” explains Smith afterward. “Your fault was that you focused on her and forgot to completely check the room for further subjects.”
“The academy teaches you to always keep your senses sharp and keep your focus, because you never know what could happen next,” says Montoya. Montoya’s classmates have less cynical reasons for signing on. “We love this community and want to give something back,” say Doris and Warren Turner. “Those officers do so much for us, so we want to do something for them now. We are thinking about volunteering at the Police Department and joining the senior patrol program.”
The Retired Senior Volunteer Program offers retired citizens of La Verne the opportunity to get involved in police work for their community. “It is a great volunteer job,” says Louis Carro, one of the seven founders of the Senior Program in 1981. “You are helping the community, dealing with the public and doing something you really enjoy.”
To become a Senior Patrol officer, the retirees have to graduate from the Citizens Police Academy, obtain a driver’s license and pass several extensive interviews. If they fulfill these requirements, existing senior volunteer officers train them. “We teach them within six months how to conduct themselves, how to do patrol work, perform vacation house tours and, also, give them driver training,” Carro says. “We teach them how to be the ears and eyes of the La Verne Police.” Seniors who earn their RSVP badge help with, among other things, department paperwork, parking control and checking vacant vacation homes. But first, they have to get through the Academy.
Pulling the participants right into the heart of police work, a ride-along in the more-clean-than-mean streets of La Verne is another memorable Citizens Academy experience. During this, Senior Police Officer Elizabeth Garcia shares her tips about the best way to deal with the cops as a civilian. “It is always the subject who sets the tone of the conversation,” she explains behind the steeling wheel of her Ford Crown Victoria police car. “As a police officer, you always have to balance between the spirit and the letter of the law. If I feel that a person understands what I mean, there is a good chance that he or she will get away with a warning,” she calmly spells out while hurtling down Arrow Highway in pursuit of a stolen Mercedes. Eventually, the Mercedes leaves town limits and is caught a few minutes later by the Pomona Police.
Not all calls are as exciting or as full of action. On the second call of the night, a mother is looking for help with her son, who has threatened to commit suicide after a big argument. “He needs to speak to an authority; I don’t know what to do anymore,” the mother complains.
Garcia prefers these jobs to adrenaline-boosting, fast and furious chases through La Verne. “There are officers who hunger for those exciting moments, but I am more into situations where I can directly deal with the subject’s personality, like this family situation,” says Garcia, who has two grown sons.
Changing prejudices about his colleagues is what Chief of Police Ron Ingles sees as the primary use of the Citizens Academy. “Some people have a bad opinion about the officers on the streets,” Ingles explains. “That is why we want to show our graduates the whole variety of police work. If they know what police work is all about, they will maybe not see the uniform but the person behind it and see the reasons for their actions.”
LVPD crime statistics show the number of crimes has decreased from 1,369 to 770 in the past 10 years. “Of course, this doesn’t mean that nothing happens in our community, but if you put those numbers in relation to other communities, I think that we live in a safe place,” Captain Rick Aragon says. He emphasizes that La Verne’s crime rate in 2001, with 745 incidents, compared favorably to its neighbors. Claremont had 1,092 incidents, San Dimas 852, Montclair 2,059 and Pomona 6,158. These numbers include only serious crimes like murder (none in La Verne in 2002), rape (seven cases), aggravated assault (64 cases) and all types of robbery and burglary (669 cases). Officer Garcia sees those numbers as the result of efficient police work. “Because of the low crime rate, we are fortunate to have the chance to be proactive here in La Verne instead of just reacting to criminal acts.”
In 2002, the LVPD made 1,427 arrests with a daily average of four new inmates in the LVPD jail. Garcia knows that some residents, especially youth and ULV students, consider officers overactive, over-present and sometimes disturbing. She defends the high police presence, saying, “We often don’t know which crimes we prevent when we are out on the streets. Maybe many traffic stops and party calls are the incubus for our proactive work. But if we only prevent one crime and make the community safer, I think that we can afford this.”
Officers also see the Academy as a means to keep crime down. According to Smith, the Citizens Academy improves crime awareness. “Maybe people get more suspicious of things they earlier played down. Maybe they make a call and prevent a crime by that.” For Garcia, the program is a tool to reduce the unpopular reputation of the LVPD. “We sometimes are a negative thing in a person’s life,” she admits. “The Citizens Academy gives us the chance to get in touch with the people in a no-stress environment and show them how we really are, and that we just do our jobs.” And in front of the class, LVPD Chief of Police Ron Ingels’ states his firm belief that his officers do a great job. “If you go to Vons or Stater Bros., at night, you don’t want to be afraid. In La Verne, you won’t have to have a bad feeling and have to keep looking over you shoulder. We make your community a safe place,” he reassures.
Montoya raises his eyebrows in disbelief. Regardless of his training in the Citizens Police Academy, he will always look over his shoulder. But after meeting the men and women of the LVPD, he knows that on the streets, out with the bad guys, are officers like Elizabeth Garcia and Detective Ryan Smith doing their best to keep the community safe and make Roger Montoya’s bloody story a cruel exception from the La Verne citizen’s everyday life.