Big Shoes to Fill


LAPD-Murder-060809Charlie Beck, the LAPD's newest boss, is a member of one of the country's most exclusive police fraternities: the disciples of Bill Bratton

On November 17, following the unanimous approval of Los Angeles City Council, Charlie Beck, a 32-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, was sworn in as chief of the LAPD. “It was a love feast,” City Councilman Richard Alarcon told the Los Angeles Times. “I can't think of any other situation where a chief has been welcomed so much.”

Nevertheless, Beck will be facing some daunting tasks over the coming years that will test his popularity–not least an LA fiscal crisis that threatens to stall the steady growth in police numbers that has played an essential part in lowering the city's crime rate to 1950s levels.

To understand the city leaders' almost-giddy enthusiasm for their new hire, and what he faces as he leads the country's third largest police force into the second decade of the 21st century, it's important to remember the man Beck is replacing.

William J. Bratton, who led the LA force from 2002 to 2009, set the stage for Beck's biggest challenge: to institutionalize the LAPD as a great big-city police department. The Boston-born Bratton rose to become one of America's most well-known cops after first catching national attention in the early 1990s, when his pioneering management and officer deployment strategies as head of what was then New York City's Transit Police made that city's subways feel safe again for millions of riders. Subsequently, as New York Police Commissioner in the mid-1990s, he sparked the city's transformation from one of America's most crime-ridden metropolises to one of the safest.

Bratton was considered an outsider when he was hired in 2002 to reform a notoriously insular LAPD. The force, then approximately 8,500-strong, was known for its paramilitary culture and a confrontational policing style that had produced hundreds of shocking police shootings and chokehold deaths–and two of the worst American riots of the 20th century.

The same year Bratton was hired, the US Justice Department forced a consent decree on the LAPD, mandating tough reforms overseen by a federal judge. Even for someone with Bratton's skills, the picture was dispiriting: the city was again in turmoil over its police department, officer morale was in a shambles, and Angelenos were skeptical they would ever see fundamental reforms in the LAPD.

But by the time he announced his departure last August to pursue really big money in the private security world (far beyond the $312,000 he was making annually as chief), Bratton had achieved a remarkable turnaround. The consent decree was lifted after a federal a judge ruled on July 16, 2009 that the department had met the requirement for instituting reforms ranging from regular audits of police use of force to dealing with the mentally ill. And in a city long wary of its police force's arrogance of power, its failure to hold officers accountable and its resistance to civilian oversight, he'd convinced a liberal mayor, the city council, and a police commission headed by an outspoken African American critic of the department, to expand the department to 10,000 officers–a goal that had eluded all previous chiefs.

He assembled a creative command staff of insiders and civilians and, in sharp contrast to previous chiefs, he not only listened to critics, but brought them into the fold. He then introduced real community-policing partnerships to diverse communities throughout the city, ending 30 years of hostility between the LAPD and the city's black leadership. And he did all this while keeping a previously combative rank-and-file union, the Police Protective League, on his side. Finally, by implementing the deployment and management reforms he pioneered in New York, he accelerated the decline of LA's violent crimes–already falling under his predecessor – to just over 26,500 in 2008, compared to more than 70,000 in 1995. Bill Bratton, in short, had placed the LAPD on a transformative course.

The question now: can Charlie Beck lock in Bratton's reforms?

An Unlikely Heir

Beck was 49 when Bratton arrived in LA, and no one then would have placed a bet on his future police career. He'd been on the force for 25 years, yet had not risen higher than a captain's rank. Moreover, in a department with a command staff stuffed with master's degrees, Beck hadn't even completed college. (He just recently earned a bachelor's degree from California State, University, Long Beach.)

He was about as old-school LAPD as they come. A tanned, dark-haired man with a full moustache, Beck not only looks like a typical LA cop; his roots in both the force and Los Angeles go deep.

The son of a former LAPD deputy chief, he grew up in suburban LA. He's the father of a daughter who is an LAPD officer, and of a son who is about to graduate from the police academy. And to underscore the family connection, Beck's sister recently retired from the LAPD, and his wife is a retired LA County sheriff's deputy.

Beck started his LAPD career as a young officer in Watts, an area of low-income housing projects so tough it a riot was named after it.

“Working in Watts was brutal,” he once told me. “I had partners killed, I saw people in the very worst circumstances, and we [officers] became filled with hate, and were despised in return.”

He went on: “It took a long time for me to understand how circumstances can dictate a person's life. Initially, all you care about are the nuts and bolts of what you're doing. But after you become comfortable with the nuts and bolts, you start wondering, 'why does this conveyor belt keep bringing me all these broken parts; and how can I affect what's going on, on the other side of the conveyor?' “

Beck turned out to have an enormous capacity to adapt and change. That was recognized early by Bratton, who made a practice of freeing his captains in the field to experiment with new ways of providing public safety. Under Bratton's supportive leadership, Beck began a meteoric rise from captain in 2002 to deputy chief in 2006. Among his successes was the rejuvenation of the Rampart Division, which in the late 1990s had housed a large nest of brutal, drug-dealing cops so bad that the “Rampart Scandal” it produced led to the federal consent decree. Beck also led the cleanup of MacArthur Park, one of LA's crown jewels, which had turned into a haven for drug dealers, prostitution and gang activity..

Beck went on to became the Deputy Chief of South Bureau, where he oversaw a sprawling, economically impoverished area of black (and increasingly Latino) Los Angeles that was the epicenter for both the 1965 and 1992 riots. There, among other innovations, he partnered with gang-intervention workers.” “I used to believe they were exactly like the guys I was trying to arrest,' he told me, “then I went to Chicago and saw they were having success using them in collaboration with the police, and that it could work here too.”

Collateral in the Bank

He also closely collaborated with neighborhood leaders in reducing crime. “They cooperated because they saw us as genuinely involved in [their problems],” he told me several years ago. “You can't just go in there and just talk nice to people. You need collateral in the bank, and we had that. These folks are very low-income and have been marginalized for years. A lot of it is just having an open dialogue, treating them like they're your equal, and not like they're some lower species that you're in charge of watching at the zoo, which is definitely the way we did it in the past.”

As a result, homicides decreased significantly in black communities like Watts.

Most observers believe that Beck is up to the job. He'll have a five-year term to cement Bratton's legacy and build his own–at which point he could be rehired for a second five-year term, before being term-limited out. At this stage, he seems to have no credible enemies or critics. He may be an even better politician than Bratton, whose Boston/New York brashness and impatience would sometimes surface with City Council members he felt were obtuse, stupid, or who simply refused to give him what he wanted.

Beck, by contrast is warmer, more politic, self-effacing, even a bit paternal, and has a native Angeleno's undisguised love for the city and the people in it–something Bratton never pretended to have. Beck's ambition has always extended no further than becoming chief of the LAPD; For Bratton, achieving the chief's insignia was widely recognized as just a step in his long-range ambition to be known as a historic, game-changing big city police chief–and perhaps become rich when he stepped into private life.

The first part of that ambition, arguably, has been achieved. Bratton can now count his disciples among police chiefs around the country. On the east coast, they include Gary McCarthy in Newark, and chiefs in Baltimore, Hartford, Connecticut, Providence, Rhode Island, Raleigh, and North Carolina. On the west coast, former LAPD Deputy Chief George Gascon, an ardent Bratton protégé, was sworn in as chief of the San Francisco PD in August.

Meanwhile, Beck comes into the job with some hard-earned credentials of his own. In Rampart and South LA, he proved his deep commitment to community policing. His strong ties to rank-and-file officers have earned him the respect of the Protective League. And his championing of the consent degree reforms have earned him the enthusiastic backing of liberals, Latinos, immigrant groups and African Americans.

My bet is that Beck will follow in Bratton's shoes. But it won't be easy to institutionalize Bratton's legacy. The new LAPD boss will have to continue the data collection required by the consent decree that held officers accountable for their actions, squash any remnants of the old hard-charging LAPD policing philosophy, and deepen and institutionalize problem-solving, community-oriented policing.

Above all, he'll have to do all this with less money. The LAPD currently has a fraction under 10,000 officers. Without funding for new hires, attrition and retirement will quickly eat away at that number. That will force Beck to make tough decisions on where to cut. Policing on the cheap with a small number of officers has historically caused big problems for the city and the department. A smaller force could revive the kind of reactive, mechanized policing–and a department alienated from the community–that led to the notorious beating of Rodney King and the 1992 riot.

Beck seems to understand all this. “The LAPD is maturing,” he told me back in 2007. “We look at things in a much broader way now because of Bratton. But there's still a lot of the same furniture in the department, and old-school LA policing is much easier to do. It's much more difficult to solve a problem than just react to it.”

Joe Domanick is the author of “To Protect and to Serve: The LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams,” which won the 1995 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best (“True Crime”) Non-Fiction Book. He is an Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice.

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