This month's fatal shooting of a Guatemalan day laborer in Los Angeles was the first crisis faced by the city's new police chief, and it posed a hard challenge to the reformed LAPD's community policing strategies.
Not that long ago, I joked with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck about his success in keeping the department out of the headlines–always an accomplishment for a big-city chief. Then came the September 5, officer-involved shooting death of Manuel Jamines, in Westlake, just west of downtown Los Angeles. The police say the 37-year-old Guatemalan day laborer was drunk and wielding a knife. An investigation is underway.
The shooting triggered three nights of violent protests, and the intensity of that localized community anger has been a test o f Beck and the newly-reformed LAPD, as well as of how Los Angeles can respond to the impact of a protracted recession on the poorest among us.
What has the crisis taught us about the implementation of “community policing” under Beck, and about the new chief?
Beck is a protege of former LAPD Chief William J. Bratton, a master of community relations and the media message. One reason Beck got the chief's job was because he had been seen as a smart and successful practitioner of community policing in his own right. He commanded the troubled Rampart Division in 2002, successfully transforming MacArthur Park from a dangerous drug bazaar into a safe, vital community resource.
In 2007, when he commanded South Bureau, a sprawling section of black, and increasingly Latino L.A., he told me, “People here have started cooperating with us because we aren't just talking nice to them, we are building collateral. These folks are very low income and have been marginalized for years. A lot of it is open dialog, and treating them like equals, and not like some lower species you're guarding at the zoo, which is definitely the way we [the LAPD] did it in the past.”
What went wrong in Westlake?
Yet Beck and the reformed LAPD seemed to have little of that kind of collateral to call on in Westlake.
A big piece of community policing is informational give-and-take between cops and the people in the neighborhoods they police. Beck has admitted that the LAPD was surprised by the anger in Westlake, caused in part by aggressive ticketing of unlicensed street venders, many of whom were receiving $250 tickets while subsisting on $10 a day from their street sales.
Chief Beck needs to examine why the department seemed so clueless, especially about the mood of the people in an area of the city which experienced both the 1999 Rampart scandal and the May Day 2007 police attack on peaceful demonstrators and the press in MacArthur Park.
After the shooting, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa didn't help matters. He “guaranteed” that the investigation would prove that the officers involved in the incident “are heroes.” Perhaps he wanted to come to the defense of Beck, whom he clearly admires. Or perhaps he wanted to buy political support with the Police Protective League (the LAPD's union). But in fact, the mayor fell into the old much-criticized, pre-Bratton pattern of declaring an officer innocent before an investigation has been completed.
Beck stumbled, too. He blamed “outside agitators” for the Westlake protests. Of course, provocateurs from the Revolutionary Communist Workers Party were on the scene, but they couldn't spark a fire without combustible fuel. Moreover, the label “outside agitators” is a toxic red flag to minorities used in the South to de-legitimize protestors, and here it appeared to put the blame for community/ police unease on a third party.
But to his credit, Beck quickly began to a offer more informed, thoughtful, nuanced, wide-ranging explanations for the protest. (Unlike the Police Protective League, which hammered away at this one issue.)
“This is a community of entry-level immigrants having an extremely difficult time making a living,” Beck told me about a week after the shooting. “Many depend on day-laboring, which has been negatively impacted by the economy in a huge way, and this has forced them into street vending [without a license]. This is not just an issue [for them] of the Los Angeles Police Department and a shooting, this is much more about the greater issue of survival.”
In the aftermath of the 2007 McArthur Park events, former chief Bratton had sought, as he recalled later, to “make a positive out of a negative.” He described the Metropolitan Division–whose officers were the perpetrators of the attacks–as “the heart of an LAPD culture that people complain about: the insensitivity, the brutality, the idea that they could use force without consequence.” He decided to use the incident to “break the back of the [division's] culture.” And he succeeded.
In the same vein, Beck has embarked on an effort to ease police-community tensions in Westlake by addressing the issue of unlicensed venders. He's identifying community leaders, setting up moderated forums with street venders, and working with Central American consul generals–all in an effort to accommodate the competing interests of a business community that wants the area to gentrify, and people that need to eat.
“You don't fix these kinds of problems overnight,” he says. “But I know what has to be done and we're already working on it.”
What this tells us about Beck as a manager is that he's solution-oriented and that he isn't returning to the old LAPD response of clamping down and trying to arrest its way out of a complex situation.
Westlake is Los Angeles' first police crisis since Bratton's resignation. Beck is still mastering his job. And yet, most of the lessons we learned about him were no surprise. His thoughtfulness, his ability to see the big picture and, remarkably for a former hard-nosed street cop, his empathy for the most powerless among us, have all been exhibited.
But the LAPD has work to do. It must concentrate on keeping its ear closer to the ground to avoid the next potential crisis in a troubled community. The chief (and the mayor) have to be more careful about their message and the words they choose before going public.
However the Westlake investigation turns out, the violence following Jamines' death is evidence of a failure on the part of the LAPD. and the preventive police work that is a key component of community policing.
But fixing a hole in community policing won't be a problem for a leader of Beck's caliber. Keeping the peace in a combustible part of the city in an extraordinarily stressful time will be his real challenge.
Joe Domanick is the West Coast Bureau Chief of the Crime Report, and Associate Director of the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
Photo by Mike via Flickr.