Alma Burke, a Los Angeles Police Department homicide investigator and supervisor, said she found her calling after spending her youth defending her brothers against crime on the way to school in Santa Ana, Calif.
“It was always unpredictable, and we never knew who was going to go after us for money,” Burke recalled. “It was then that I knew that I wanted to be a police officer, and protect others and remove the fears of a child.”
Part of the community
In her 18 years of service with the LAPD since then, Burke has taken the interests and needs of the community to heart.
“Community-based policing is not just a buzzword; it’s a way of life.”
It is this commitment to the community that helped Burke earn a newly established scholarship for the USC Executive Master of Leadership (EML) program, which emphasizes leadership skills that foster inclusion and collaboration.
Four local officers are the first recipients of the USC-LAPD Scholarship, which is awarded to officers who demonstrate a commitment to community-based policing.
The scholarship provides half the tuition for the EML program at the USC Price School of Public Policy. About a third of the EML students are in public service, a third in the private sector and a third in nonprofit organizations.
Now in its seventh year, the EML is already recognized internationally as one of the outstanding graduate degree programs in leadership.
Bob Denhardt, professor and director of the program, noted that the new scholarship fund will “help to develop advanced leadership capabilities among the university’s partners in law enforcement as it does in many other fields.”
The university established the scholarship this year in appreciation of the LAPD and in recognition of the department’s long history working alongside the university to ensure safety in the neighborhoods surrounding USC.
Officer Jackie Orellana, another scholarship recipient, said she has already seen a shift in how she perceives her work in the gang and narcotics division since she started the program at USC.
“I used to have a narrow, myopic mindset that ‘I’m just a cop,’ but now I evaluate things more broadly and see myself within the organization,” she said. “It changes the dynamics of those I work with and the way I behave.”
A single mother of four, Orellana, like Burke, gravitated toward law enforcement at an early age.
“I grew up at 6th and Alvarado, which was a low-income, high-crime area, and there were negative views of police there,” she recalled. “But I had very positive interactions with police and knew that was what I would do someday. As police, we have to build trust with the community.”
Burke said her community-based approach was put to the test when she led the team of detectives that solved the senseless killing of two USC graduate students in 2012. She called the apprehension of those responsible “the most gratifying moment of my career.”
Orellana said the scholarship builds upon the partnership and mutual appreciation between USC and the LAPD. It will also create more community-minded leaders on the force.
“I am part of a larger community that will continue to serve USC students as a whole by continuing my education. By allowing officers to have this scholarship to pursue this degree, USC is changing the way they do police work and how they interact with the community,” she said.