Jay Roberts was undercover, shooting pool and throwing darts while doing a bar check in a biker joint. Suddenly, his partner got antsy, convinced they’d been made. But Roberts, an actor before he became a cop with the Los Angeles Police Department, stayed cool and collected.
“Dude, we’re good,” he said to his buddy. “Commit to the character.”
“But that guy’s looking crazy at me!”
“Look angry back.”
That wasn’t the first time the crime-fighting Bruin, who graduated from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in 1984, used what he learned on campus on the job, nor would it be the last. Roberts is now a lieutenant currently loaned to a gang impact team out of the new Topanga station in the San Fernando Valley.
“I always wanted to be a cop,” he says about the path that took him from college kid to cop. “I’m a good guy. I like being able to do something about what’s wrong. Whether it’s a bad person the police need to talk to or rubbish in an alley that needs to be picked up or a drug house that needs to be abated, I want to be able to do something about it.”
That passion to make a difference is familiar to any member of the Bruin family. But the drive doesn’t always lead the best and brightest into law, business, medicine, academia or any of the other difference-making fields one usually associates with UCLA graduates.
For scores of alumni, that desire led them to the LAPD — and it has for decades. California Court of Appeals judge Buck Compton ’43 was the Police Academy’s law instructor (and the inspiration for Stephen Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers). And, of course, L.A.’s first African-American mayor, Tom Bradley ’41, was a longtime police officer.
These cops are young and old, beat cops and captains. They do all sorts of jobs, some dangerous, some not. They all had different reasons and took different paths to the department. But they all share a burning need to live “a life of significance,” as Captain Jodi Wakefield ’93 of the LAPD’s Internal Audits and Inspections Division describes it.
And they are all extraordinary.
Last October, Karen Wagener ’66, the president of the Los Angeles Police Foundation and a tireless networker for Bruin cops, had what she calls a really fun experience. She attended the dedication of the sparkling new Hollenbeck Community Police Station that serves Boyle Heights and other East L.A. neighborhoods.
“As I was driving to the reception,” recalls Wagener, “these cops saw my license plate, which says UCLA, and came running up and said, ‘We love UCLA! We know there’s a game on tonight. We hope you win!’ We go into the reception, and I said I was so impressed there were so many Bruins there. And somebody said, ‘They’re not Bruins; they just want to impress the captain.’”
Their captain, it turns out, is Anita Ortega ’82, the UCLA Hall of Fame basketball star and one of only two female area commanding officers. “What I learned from my athletic background is that it’s important to be a good, strong leader, to be patient and flexible,” Ortega says. “I’ve used all of those things.”
For Detective Susan Brumagin ’87, the link connecting the campus and the LAPD is even more explicit. She was a community service officer at UCLA. But at 5’4” and less than 110 pounds, she thought she was too small for police work. But the LAPD officers who came to campus to pick up radios for local foot patrols, including one named Bill Justice — really — encouraged her. She figured if they thought she had a shot, she might as well try. Today, she’s the head of the LAPD Animal Cruelty Task Force (ACTF).
Over in the Metropolitan Division, which houses specialized elements like the canine unit, SWAT, mounted officers and two platoons that take on crime suppression citywide, Sergeant Brian Morrison ’92 uses his history degree all the time. “What you learn about cultural differences comes into play in a city like L.A., where you’re dealing with so many different people from so many different walks of life,” he says.
One of Captain Ortega’s 300 officers is Sergeant Robert Hernandez ’06, who could be the model for a UCLA success story. His wife, Migdalia, graduated from UCLA with a biology degree in 1990, when Hernandez was in his third year with the LAPD. No one in his family had gone to college, but the campus “enlightened” him to the possibilities of higher education. He majored in English literature while still working as a cop, studying Chaucer in an undercover car while the suspects he was trailing were eating lunch, and getting three or four hours of sleep a night. But he got his degree — at age 43.
Hernandez says studying English made him more open-minded, which helps him on the job. But the biggest asset he took away from UCLA? “Writing. It’s just as important as being able to shoot your gun.”
Traditionally, law enforcement has not investigated animal crime, a range of offenses that includes dog fighting, cock fighting, animal cruelty, animal neglect, animal sacrifice and bestiality. But in 2005, the ACTF was formed and it has become a model for other law enforcement agencies. (The ACTF’s Education Outreach Program takes the message into K–8 classrooms in the city and has been filmed by Animal Planet.)
Brumagin runs the ACTF from police headquarters in downtown L.A. and supervises its five officers and two detectives. She sees her mission as preventing even more horrific crimes — the human-on-human kind. “Our job is obviously protecting the welfare of the animals, but there is a big connection between people who abuse animals and then abuse their wives, girlfriends or children,” she explains, adding that “probably one in three of the juveniles we arrest have been sexually or physically abused themselves.”
She’s not alone in her mission. David Diliberto ’87 was part of Los Angeles Animal Services — not the LAPD, but the “animal cops.” He was a commander who supervised the people who enforce the City of Los Angeles’ animal protection laws and care for them in shelters. He helped write ordinances prohibiting the chaining of dogs, prohibiting animals from being locked in vehicles on hot days and other laws — until he and his family were targeted by animal-rights terrorists. So he moved to the LAPD, where today he is assistant commanding officer of the Cold Case Special Section and the highest-ranking civilian in the Robbery Homicide Division.
“Everybody who goes into law enforcement does so because they want to help people,” explains Detective Christopher Rodriguez ’92, whose degree is in political science and who works Mission Patrol, which covers the northeast corner of the San Fernando Valley.
The entire city is Sergeant Morrison’s territory. As a squad leader in Metro’s Charlie platoon, his team “follows the bouncing ball” wherever they’re needed, not just taking down criminals but also protecting dignitaries and policing special events.
For some Bruins, motivation extends far beyond the city limits. It stretches, in fact, to a gaping hole on the southern tip of Manhattan. Several graduates say 9/11 led them to the LAPD. Among them: Sergeant Steve Lurie ’94, out of Southeast Division, which essentially polices Watts.
During his undergraduate days, Lurie drove an ambulance part-time in Compton, Long Beach and Carson, gleaning firsthand experience of some of the region’s tougher neighborhoods.
He became a cop but had his sights set on law. After four years in the department, he began taking night courses at Loyola Law School. Then he took a leave from the LAPD to go work for a law firm. When planes struck the World Trade Center towers, he said to himself, “Right now, the world needs good cops more than it needs good lawyers.” And that was that.
For some Bruin LAPD officers, the choice to serve was even more personal. Being in Los Angeles was the clincher for Justin Wade ’03, an officer in the Training Division (whose twin brother, Joshua Wade ’03, is in the Narcotics Division). “I’m a family guy, and my family’s here,” he notes.
“UCLA is a very magical place,” adds Officer Ryan Lee ’01, who played on the Bruins’ 1997 NCAA championship men’s soccer team and professionally with the Colorado Rapids, and now trains LAPD recruits and service personnel in physical fitness and self-defense. “The years I spent there just gave me such a great impression of the city. That has shaped my desire to stay within L.A. and be a community servant.”
Officer Sharon Kim ’05 has a degree in classical civilizations and a minor in political science and wanted to be a doctor. She was, in fact, a certified Emergency Medical Technician in high school. Last April, she graduated from the Police Academy with top marks because she realized that it wasn’t medicine she was interested in; it was “making a difference, helping people and serving the public.”
Kim first heard her call to service at the age of 12, when she witnessed the aftermath of a hit-and-run accident. “A girl had gotten hit by a car while crossing the street, and the scene was horrific,” she remembers. “There was blood everywhere, and the only sound I could hear was the girl screaming in pain. Firefighters, EMTs and police officers responded to the scene, and soon everything became a flurry of lights, medical bags, IVs and crime scene tape. I could only remember feeling helpless, wanting to help but not knowing what to do. And I vowed to myself that I would do everything in my power to never feel that feeling again.”
Sometimes service can seem mundane, but its consequences are profound. That’s certainly the case with Captain Wakefield, who comes from a family filled with both Bruins and police officers. She left UCLA to join the LAPD in 1983 — “I grew up listening to a scanner and I needed a paying job” — and then returned nine years later to earn her degree.
Wakefield’s job is to provide independent, objective assurance regarding the department’s risk management and internal controls, including gang enforcement, field operations and investigative processes. It was born out of the Consent Decree, the agreement between the LAPD and the U.S. Justice Department in the wake of the Rampart police scandal in 2001, in which anti-gang officers committed crimes. The courts ruled last summer that the department had complied with the agreement and released the LAPD from the decree.
The agreement paved the way for the arrival of former Chief William Bratton, widely credited with making the LAPD the model law enforcement operation it is today. Helping Bratton in that effort was lawyer Gerald Chaleff ’63, commanding officer of the Consent Decree Bureau.
“There’s no question that we are now the leading department in the country on what we call police performance audits,” Chaleff contends. “Best risk management. Best training. Best programs on how to deal with the mentally ill. Best investigations on use of force. Best complaint investigations. We can’t go a day without a visitor from another city or country coming here for help.”
And that’s the big takeaway when talking to Bruin cops. These are smart people doing an incredibly difficult job with responsibility and compassion. “I sometimes jokingly call them social workers with guns,” laughs Wagener.
Bruin cops themselves are impressed by their fellow officers. Lee, for example, is a little discouraged that the public really doesn’t realize that the department has “people with law degrees, grad degrees. I’m finishing up my business degree from Pepperdine. We’re just as competitive as any other business.”
“When I came into the police department, I was very concerned about what I would find once I got behind that blue curtain,” seconds Roberts. “Is it like the movie Training Day [where Denzel Washington played the most crooked cop in a crooked police department]? It isn’t. [The LAPD is] what you’d want a police department to be.”