Festive blue balloons courtesy of the Los Angeles Police Department adorned the main escalator of the Staples Center Saturday afternoon, as potential recruits filed into a hiring seminar with a twist: free lunch and tickets to our own Arena Football League team, the L.A Avengers.

In a Staples Center conference room whose most significant decorative element is a giant Wachovia logo, a jumbo flat-screen monitor played motivational videos featuring beaming SWAT members (“I just wanted to go where the action is”), bicycle cops performing extreme tricks, the LAPD’s funny car barreling down a track and officers engaged in various neighborhood-friendly activities.

A hiring bonanza is under way, what with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s promise to “grow” the agency by 1,000 officers this fiscal year. Over the past three years, the LAPD has added nearly 1,500 cops, but at the same time, as salt-’n’-pepper-haired Captain Joe Mariani noted, attrition rates are high.

“Five-hundred-and-fifty-four people are retiring this year. I need you! We’re not looking for perfect people,” he emphasized. “We hire approximately one out of nine that go through the selection process.”

After filling out a preliminary background check during lunch, I took to the complimentary roasted-vegetable panini like a cop takes to aviators. But then I realized I’d filled out one of the forms incorrectly, and got busted for the pocketknife dangling from my key chain. Suddenly, the captain held up my messenger bag, resplendent with the words “Science Fiction” and an anime boy-bot.

“We were going to call in the bomb squad,” he chuckled, as I sheepishly realized I was going to have to come clean about my past drug use and drunken arrests if I was to go the distance with the LAPD.

The mood of joviality continued. “The sheriffs won’t feed you like this! And forget football tickets!”

The closest competitor to the LAPD is hiring a scant 100 new recruits, but the Sheriff’s Department scored big time as one of the few recipients of increased cash as outlined by the ragged new county budget. Forget schools or art — public outrage may have prevented $1.5 million from being slashed from our libraries’ budget, but only the Sheriff’s Department (and its in-custody medical facilities), the mental health department and gang intervention will receive substantial increases in funding this fiscal year.

“I came to the academy straight out of high school,” remarked one sergeant. “I’ve never had a dull moment. I worked undercover buying drugs, buying guns …and I spent five years in the gang unit in South Central. I didn’t want to spend five, six years working the jails, like you do with the sheriffs.” Each of the county’s 19 patrol divisions feature a gang unit, as will the two new divisions being built at press time (Topanga and Olympic).

As a longstanding anti-authoritarian, unrepentant bohemian and countercultural gal-about-town, I have never been a big fan of the po’ po’, yet I’ve found myself oddly attracted to my potential new career.

Turns out, I meet the minimum requirements: I’m over 20½ years old. I am a U.S. citizen. I have no felony convictions. I am in decent physical shape. And I believe I have, to a degree, “a background suitable to be a police officer.”

The LAPD is searching for “well-rounded people with integrity,” and if you fudge your background, it’ll all come out in the polygraph test. Most recruits, Mariani says, face “hiccups and speed bumps. Did you smoke marijuana five times 10 years ago? Be honest.”

Granted, the seven-step hiring process is impressively thorough, as the PowerPoint presentation outlined. On Saturday, I completed step one: three essay questions on my life experience, integrity and past. From there, recruits must pass physical aptitude tests, a background investigation, medical and psychological evaluations and an interview.

“The psych test is a lot of fun,” noted one sergeant. Once deemed sane, a recruit need only wait for certification and a call from the academy. “Can you start Monday?” he guffawed.

Once accepted, recruits are paid a starting salary of $58,5222, more if they have any kind of college credit (while receiving 18 credits once they’ve completed training). In the academy, one learns all kinds of useful life skills: Spanish, firearms training, human relations, tactics.

“You’ll be in the best shape of your life,” noted another sergeant.

After the academy, it’s on to field training and then a crack at one of the 251 careers the force has to offer. Working three 12-hour shifts, one could go back to school, with the LAPD reimbursing tuition. If you come from the military and are deployed, the LAPD will continue to pay your salary. And new hires receive 28 days of paid vacation annually. They want their people happy, because, as Mariani said, “It’s a high-stress job. You’re going to get yelled at.”

And they want their people sane. After 18 months of service, you can look into learning to pilot a helicopter, entering SWAT, joining undercover investigations or becoming a detective. Picturing myself as more Police Academy than Police Academy, I could see myself as the Fletch or Officer Zed of the LAPD.

With the start of the Avengers game drawing closer, I left my fellow recruits behind — I had tickets to see Iron Maiden.

“You’re the architect of your own destiny,” Mariani noted. But could mine include a badge and a gun?

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