The Academy’s 464 class is smaller than three weeks ago.
The loss is most evident when law enforcement recruits stand in formation. There are empty spaces where nine classmates should be.
Where they would have been if an SUV hadn’t veered into the wrong lane during an academy practice last month in South Whittier. If he had not hit dozens of young hopefuls before hitting a lamppost. If he hadn’t sent several of them to the hospital.
After the November 16 crash, three recruits remain hospitalized. One is in a coma; another has just woken up. Six others are recovering at home.
The other classmates this week returned to the Sheriff’s Training Academy and Regional Services, or STARS, Center. The sheriff’s department granted The Times access to the academy on Wednesday, but asked that the recruits not be interviewed due to the ongoing investigation.
The driver, Nicholas Gutierrez, was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder of peace officers, but was released the day after the crash. Gutierrez’s lawyer said the 22-year-old fell asleep at the wheel on his way to work.
No case has been presented to the district attorney’s office, according to a spokesperson, so Gutierrez has not yet been charged with a crime.
At the academy, rookie schedules were filled with meetings with supporters, including the outgoing Los Angeles County Sheriff and students from Southern California law enforcement academies. The recruits, they hope, are getting their lives back on track.
“Their mindset is, ‘Hey, I’m doing this for my fellow recruits who are in the hospital, for my recruits who won’t be here or who might not pass this class,'” Lt. John Haynes said. , who runs the strength training unit at the academy, “To see this is just awe-inspiring.”
Haynes, who has worked in the sheriff’s department for 26 years, calls the recruits kids, “because they feel like mine.”
“We’re going to go through a career, and some of us will never see what those kids saw,” Haynes said.
On September 22, 76 recruits began the training program at STARS Center. There were recent college graduates, military veterans – four from the Marine Corps – and some looking for a career change. They were class 464.
To guarantee their place, they underwent tests of aptitude, physical agility and psychological. Investigators combed through their lives, interviewing neighbors, family members and former teachers and supervisors. Once cleared, they were eligible to enter the academy.
Men and women would spend 22 weeks there, before graduating and launching their careers in law enforcement. The majority were recruits for the LA County Sheriff’s Department, although smaller police departments also sent candidates to be trained.
During the first few weeks, the class learned military and police traditions. They wore uniforms and entered military formations. They prepared for weapons inspections. More importantly, during the 40-hour work weeks, they focused on being a team.
“They have to learn to work together as one unit first before they can learn anything else,” said Capt. Pat Macdonald, who runs the sheriff’s department’s training office. “Because in this business, you always rely on your partners.
Eight weeks into Class 464 at the academy, that training was put to the test.
On the morning of November 16, the recruits were on a four-mile practice run. They were planning their “Race to the Colors,” which would be dedicated to a deceased officer and help them earn patches for their uniforms.
Dressed in green shorts and white T-shirts, the recruits ran in formation around 6:30 a.m., accompanied by six instructors and two black-and-white radio cars. They were a mile into their course and had just passed Fire Station 96 on Mills Avenue when those in front of the group spotted a Honda CR-V approaching.
“Front vehicle,” they replied.
The SUV veered onto the wrong side of the road and into the group. The runners in the front were able to get out of the way before the SUV hit others and crashed into a lamppost.
Macdonald was three-quarters of a mile away when he received the call that a vehicle had passed through the class members. He arrived on the scene within minutes. There were bodies everywhere.
“I’ve been in the department for almost 28 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this, where it looked like bodies were falling from the sky, and so many people needed medical attention at any given time,” Macdonald recalled.
The recruits, who had taken a CPR test earlier in the week, had already sprang into action, helping their more seriously injured classmates.
“They immediately had to go from ‘I’m on the run’ to ‘I have to save my partner’s life.’ And ‘my partners’ [lives],’ in the plural,” Macdonald said. “We couldn’t have asked them to do more than they did in such a short time in law enforcement.”
Twenty-five recruits were injured, five of them seriously, with head trauma and broken bones. One of them was placed on a ventilator and listed in serious condition. The weekend after the accident, Sheriff Alex Villanueva swore him in as a full deputy.
The class received psychological services and took Thanksgiving week. After reassessment, the recruits returned on Monday.
“Their dream is to be deputy sheriffs,” Macdonald said, “and they all wanted to come back.”
Before sunrise on Wednesday, 65 recruits gathered on a green carpet inside the academy’s gymnasium. Dressed in gray tracksuits, with their surnames printed on the front and back, they stood in formation, facing a yellow sign reading “Welcome back class #464!”
The bleachers were littered with green water bottles, each stamped with a recruit’s name, platoon and blood type. There were zipper bags with bananas and protein bars.
The women, more than a dozen of them, had their hair pulled back into tight buns. The men’s hair was cut close.
“Everyone line up, two rows, let’s jog,” shouted defensive tactics instructor Arin Davidian.
The class was warming up to spend the morning reviewing defensive tactics. The crash had delayed a scheduled test and instructors wanted to make sure the recruits were ready.
“Obviously we bring them back. We understand that we still have work to do, but it will be a slow process,” said Robert Mason, the course’s lead instructor. “Talking to a lot of rookies, they don’t want the formation to change. By doing this too, it saves them from thinking about it. …It’s always there, it’s never going to go away, but it really helps.
On Monday, the rookies were greeted with applause and balloons. Other recruits from the law enforcement academy arrived to offer their support and give the class a showcase of police patches. The Louisville, Ky., Police Department has posted video of its academy class completing the remaining three miles of the STARS rookie race in honor of Class 464.
The rookies had their first physical training session on Tuesday.
“There were a few people you could tell [the crash] was on their mind. It was the first time we were handing over our PT gear and everything we had done on the day of the incident,” Mason said.
There were other reminders: the empty spaces in training, the gymnasium that had served as a gathering place for recruits and family members after the crash, the two recruits in the stands, crutches beside them . There was also the speaker who came to offer his support and a sergeant whose son had been killed by another wrong-way driver in another accident.
But on Wednesday, the rookies seemed focused on the task at hand. They grabbed their belts, loaded with handcuffs, batons and guns. Their instructors did a weapons inspection to make sure the guns and magazines were empty of ammunition before the course started.
Davidian, dressed in green tactical pants, led them through the takeovers to be used when arresting a suspect. They practiced on their partners. Sometimes they smiled at each other or gave each other a thumbs up.
The click of the handcuffs echoed throughout the gymnasium as each person was “apprehended”. By the end of the practice, many were drenched in sweat.
“Great job – that’s what I like to see,” Davidian said as they regrouped. “Everyone came back together.”
The halls of the academy are decorated with framed photos of rookie classes dating back to 1989.
Early next year, Class 464 will pose for their photo. The recruits who started with the rest of the class will be missing – maybe nine, maybe more. But those who are separated from their class will be retained as county employees until they are rehabilitated and can return to complete the academy.
If they can.
“When they’re healthy, we’ll bring them back right away,” Macdonald said.
What if they can’t? Nobody talks about that now.
For the foreseeable future, rookies won’t be racing the streets of Whittier. The color race, however, will continue.
But this one will not honor a deceased law enforcement officer.
This one will be dedicated to the Academy Class 464.
Los Angeles Times