Three teenage members of the Los Angeles Police Department's cadet program were in custody Thursday for allegedly stealing three police cruisers and leading authorities on two chases that ended with crashes in South Los Angeles.
Chief Charlie Beck said he has ordered a top-to-bottom review of the cadet program as a result of the thefts, saying the cadets may have been impersonating police officers when they were in possession of the vehicles.
After the crashes involving two police cruisers Wednesday night, a third LAPD vehicle that may have been stolen by the suspects was found parked on a street, Beck said.
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Police spotted two of the stolen vehicles about 9:35 p.m. Wednesday in the 400 block of East 61st Street, between San Pedro Street and Avalon Boulevard, said Officer Tony Im of the LAPD Media Relations Division.
The two vehicles were being driven in tandem when they were spotted by officers, prompting the chases, Beck said. Investigators believe the cadets used their knowledge of the LAPD's computer inventory system to check the vehicles out under the name of a sergeant who was on vacation, Beck said.
The chief said he "was not sure" how long the cars had been missing, but one of them may have been gone for two weeks. The LAPD has more than 1,800 black-and-white squad vehicles but they are not all used every day, and because of the suspects' familiarity with the computer system, they were able to conceal the thefts, Beck said.
All of the vehicles were taken from 77th Division Station in South Los Angeles, and the vehicle that was discovered parked on a street was around the corner from the station, Beck said. Beck also said the suspects were in possession of some LAPD equipment, including radios and a bullet-proof vest, although no firearms are believed to be missing.
"We believe they may have been impersonating officers, and we want the public's help. Anybody that believes that they may have come into contact with very young-looking folks that claimed to be police officers, primarily in the south or central parts of the city, or possibly in areas west of that, such as in Inglewood, we would like to know," Beck said at a news conference at LAPD headquarters.
Beck said it was "not easy" to check out a police vehicle, and cadets are not supposed to have access to them. The missing vehicles were discovered by a supervisor who was doing equipment inventory Wednesday, and police were able to identify a female cadet on video gassing up one of them, Beck said.
Police pursued both vehicles Wednesday night, with one of the purloined cruisers crashing in the area of 77th and San Pedro streets where the driver was taken into custody, police said. The other stolen vehicle crashed into another vehicle at Adams Boulevard and Central Avenue, and that driver was also was taken into custody.
The female driver of the vehicle the suspect crashed into was taken to a hospital with minor injuries, police said. It wasn't immediately clear how the third suspect was involved in the incident, but Beck said the three suspects -- one female and two males -- were working together.
An officer crashed into a civilian vehicle near the intersection of Gage Avenue and Broadway during the chase, police said. There were no reports of any serious injuries involved in that crash. Beck said the cadet program has more than 2,300 active participants.
The cadet program is "designed to offer youth an opportunity to develop skills that will help them throughout their lives, while working with one of the finest law enforcement agencies in the country," according to its website. Twenty-one community police stations, and seven specialized devisions offer the program for eligible 13- to 20-year-olds. Cadets must maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average, have a clean criminal record and "maintain good moral character."
They are also required to have completed a "Cadet Leadership Academy" that meets on Saturdays for 15-straight weeks.
The program allows cadets to work in the field with officers and with other youth in their communities. Some participants in the program have earned college scholarships.
"I'm very proud of our cadet program and I don't want the actions of these three individuals to reflect negatively on the other 2,300," Beck said.