Alma Burke quickly stood out as a qualified candidate in the Department of Public Safety’s national search for an assistant chief, according to Chief John Thomas. Her experience in community engagement with Los Angeles’ youth ultimately won her the job.
The USC alumna and former sergeant of the Los Angeles Police Department will be the first Latina assistant chief at DPS. Her law enforcement credentials span 24 years, working in undercover narcotics and cases involving homicide and sexual assault.
“I call it the one-stop shop,” Burke said. “I really diversified myself and made myself uncomfortable by learning so many new things about law enforcement and the people it serves.”
Burke has served her community by creating Rockets in the Projects, an LAPD initiative that aims to build relationships and fortify trust with youth at a local elementary school in Watts. Part of the LAPD Community Safety Partnership, the program brings in scientists and officers to help students engineer their own rockets and encourage them to become involved in science and engineering.
According to Thomas, the intensive program, which he hopes to implement with the department, encourages young people to pursue STEM and stray away from crime.
“[Rockets in the Projects is] exactly the type of initiatives that I want our department to engage in with members of our surrounding neighborhood and community that live in the shadows of USC but often times really don’t benefit from that,” Thomas said. “I think those are the kinds of things I’m excited [about] when I think about what Alma can bring to our department.”
Even before the start of her law enforcement career, Burke always had a passion for justice. Combined with her love of education, she said the assistant chief position seemed to be a perfect fit.
“I’ve always been moved by the idea of mentoring and helping those that need that help, that don’t have the support,” Burke said. “[Coming to DPS] combines my two loves: my passion for teaching and also law enforcement and knowledge.”
Thomas said her compassion for her community and her similar background to many of the University’s students and neighbors is what made her unique compared to other candidates.
“It was those intangibles,” Thomas said. “Of being a first-generation college student, being from a minority group, and I think also understanding and knowing Los Angeles — seeing [the community] at their best and at their worst.”
Burke said she plans to continue her dedication to community engagement on campus by mentoring elementary-age students in the surrounding University area.
“It would be nice for our local students in the community to come on campus, see how beautiful it is, but also have those same opportunities to sit down in a nice desk,” Burke said. “You take those things for granted but they don’t have … all these resources like we do at USC.”
Burke’s experiences — growing up as a first-generation student with limited resources and as a daughter of immigrant parents — have motivated her to create initiatives that reflect the needs of the community she grew up in.
“Knowing the power of mentorship and having a village of people that are willing to help you — that was instrumental in how it shaped me, from childhood through my law enforcement career and more importantly my time at USC as a student,” Burke said.
Cultural organizations La CASA and Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs also participated in the decision making process.
CBCSA Director Greedley Harris III said Burke visited the center and interacted with the students in an informal setting where he asked her questions to gauge how she would connect with the community.
“I thought she had great energy, had great foresight,” Harris said. “[She] seemed like she was willing to be present in the community and wanting to break down some barriers between law enforcement and communities of color.”
In an email to the Daily Trojan, La CASA Director Billy Vela wrote on the importance of integrating cultural groups into the appointment decision to show that their voices matter.
“To be included and to give a voice to the Latinx USC community … [it] is imperative that USC administrative leaders be socially conscious, proactive and have previous experiences with the diversity of our Trojan [community],” Vela said.
Although DPS searched for a candidate who would focus on connecting with Black and Latinx communities on and around campus, Burke said that her goal was to build trust with all students on campus and ensure community safety regardless of their background.
“I’d like to specifically know what each student’s needs are,” Burke said. “Everyone has different needs, and I want to make sure we address those needs and more importantly, that we’re transparent when something does come up, that they know what was done about it and how we’re going to move forward.”
Burke said she wants to continue fostering relationships with students, hoping to build a similar community to the one she found on campus as a student.
“I think she will really strengthen our community engagement efforts,” Thomas said. “Partnerships will develop in places that we have struggled in the past to have solid relationships internally. I think she will be a catalyst to that.”