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Sergeant Kelly Benitez is a modern-day crime fighter who knows experience is the best teacher.
There’s just something about the City of Angels’ dark side that feeds our insatiable appetite for all the gritty details of true crime. But for Benitez, a nearly 20-year veteran with the LAPD, it’s just another day at the office.
Sgt. Kelly Benitez narrates riveting chapters of the Los Angeles Police Department’s history like they happened yesterday: The “bling ring,” a band of teenagers and young adults who broke into celebrities’ homes, netting roughly $3 million in cash and bling (with a large cache from Paris Hilton). The famed North Hollywood shootout with bank robbers who fired off nearly 2,000 rounds of ammo while wearing full suits of body armor that deflected bullets. And the fired rogue L.A. cop who led police on an intense manhunt after killing three people.
Making sure crime doesn’t pay
Growing up in Glendora, California, he discovered his passion for criminal justice as a high school student participating in an after-school program that explored law enforcement careers. “I went on ride-alongs with police officers and worked at the police station,” he recalls. “It seemed like a very secure, exciting career to go into.” After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Air Force and served as a security police officer on military bases as far away as Osan, Korea, and the Azores in Portugal. Returning to civilian life in southern California, his goal was to join the LAPD, the nation’s third-largest police force, but he was in for a three-year wait. During that time, he worked in retail, served in the military reserves and completed an associate’s degree at a local community college before pursuing a University of Phoenix bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
He found a flexible learning structure to be essential—especially after landing a full-time job with LAPD. “Being able to take classes around my work schedule was huge,” he says. “I was working three 12-hour shifts. Those were long days. It was a challenge to commute to work, put in long days and come home and study.” Afterward, he earned a master’s degree in management and supervision from the University of La Verne.
Out of the blue
In a city where instant celebrity has been honed to an art form, Benitez inadvertently stepped into the spotlight as a patrol officer making a routine traffic stop in September 1998.
After a hectic day that included a court appearance, recovery of a stolen vehicle and several burglary investigation calls, he spotted a vehicle with an expired registration. He stopped the male driver, asked for his driver’s license and noted they had the same last name. As part of police routine, he returned to his vehicle to perform a license check, which confirmed the driver to be Paul Benitez Jr. How odd—the driver’s name was the same as Benitez’ long-lost father he hadn’t seen since he was four months old. Benitez asked the driver if he had ever been married to a woman named Debra. The driver said he was never married to a Debra but he had dated a woman by that name more than 20 years ago. As the driver gazed at Benitez, his own mirror image of two decades ago, he exclaimed: “Oh my God, I’m your father!”
Reuniting fathers with children they long ago abandoned was a popular daytime talk show theme. Soon after the story of the unusual father-son reunion hit the news, Benitez and his long-lost father appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
For Benitez, who now heads the LAPD jail division’s training unit, the last 19 years provide fodder for great classroom discussions on law enforcement, and he hopes to teach criminal justice classes at the college level. By any standard, he has made the grade.
“To have a successful career in the Los Angeles Police Department is a great foundation to teach anywhere,” he says. Beyond its true crime that fuels classroom discussions and made-for-TV movies—think the O.J. Simpson murder trial—LAPD is as much of a national trendsetter as the city itself. The world-renowned police agency was the first to hire policewomen (beginning in 1888, no less) and to launch a crime lab, SWAT unit and DARE program. Today, diversity that spans race, gender and sexual orientation is one of its hallmarks. “We’re a microcosm of society and mirror the community,” he says. “That’s something we do really well.”
With approximately 10,000 police officers serving nearly 4 million people over 498 square miles, “we’ve always been undermanned,” says Benitez, who’s passionate about teaching new recruits the policies and procedures that make the LAPD legendary in the American police community. “It’s really rewarding to explain how law enforcement actually works—the policies and procedures outside of the news clip—to people who have an interest,” he adds.
With the LAPD forever in the limelight, Benitez much prefers his behind-the-scenes role within one of the most famous police departments in the world, where everyday crimes—and even routine traffic stops—sound like they came straight out of a Hollywood script.
Lori K. Baker is an award-winning journalist who specializes in human-interest profiles, business and health. Her articles have appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, Arizona Highways and Johns Hopkins Health.