The LAPD and the End of Charlie Beck’s Honeymoon

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Charlie Beck

Charlie Beck. Photo by Scott L. via Flickr

By the summer of 2014, Charlie Beck should have been cakewalking on the road to being rehired for a second term as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). But it didn’t turn out that way.

Instead, his reputation as a straight-shooting, stand-up guy with a sharp instinct for getting the right things done in the right way took a big hit—about which more shortly.

But for most of his first five years as chief, that reputation had been his calling card, best illustrated in 2011, at the height of the Occupy protest movement. While cops in Oakland and New York were brutally removing protestors from Occupy sites, Beck and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa allowed them to peacefully camp on the lawn of City Hall for two months.

One day, as Beck was touring the encampment grounds, the pungent scent of marijuana suddenly perfumed the air, causing a reporter to sidle up to Beck and ask: “Hey, Chief, you smell that, right? What are you going to do about it? ”

Beck tried ignoring him, but the reporter persisted. Finally, he turned around and said: “Look, I don’t care about that. What I care about is peacefully resolving this situation. That’s the important thing.”

And Beck had been right. The Occupy story in LA never became the brutal-police story, as it did in so many other cities. When the mayor finally ordered the demonstrators to leave, Beck’s clearing-operation went off with a disciplined, it-isn’t-personal, it’s-just-business precision that caused remarkably few complaints.

And that, essentially, was the way Charlie Beck would operate as chief: be nice, only use force when necessary, build alliances around the city, and be sure to keep yourself and the department off the front pages of the Los Angeles Times. In person, Beck also radiated honesty and candor, authenticity and solidity of character. And if you spoke to him in depth, you came away impressed by his plans to avoid the pattern of arrogance and abuse that had made the LAPD notorious for decades.

All of which he backed up with his polices.

He publicly lobbied for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, and in the interim ordered the practice of impounding cars driven by those license-less immigrants stopped—an order that meant working people no longer had to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in towing and impoundment fees they did not have.

Hard liners squawked, but the action helped Beck built vital ties with the Latino community.

Throughout the city, but particularly in black LA, Beck committed to community policing – the real kind that requires the hard, on-going work of officers to build trust on their beats through grassroots neighborhood relationships that foster a reputation for fairness. Simultaneously, he became a major force in establishing LA’s “Urban Peace Academy”—a certificated program that trained former gang-bangers to become intervention workers focused on helping to stem gang violence.

Few Complaints

The result: little organized protest against the department, few complaints about systemic police abuse, and no major public scandals or humiliations.

Equally important for Beck, major crime in Los Angeles had gone down 11 straight years in a row, the last four on his watch. Thus, as Beck’s first five-year tenure as chief approached last August, his reappointment to a second and final term in office seemed assured.

It was then that the rumors and accusations started flying.

Some of the crossfire came from police commissioners concerned that Beck’s disciplinary sanctions for officers accused of serious infractions were way too lenient. In fact, some cases did raise troubling questions about Beck’s judgment. The most serious concerned a mother and daughter who were delivering newspapers at about 5 am in February, 2013—a day on which the entire LAPD was on high alert.

Christopher Dorner, an ex-LAPD officer angered over being fired, had gone on a rampage, killing one police officer, wounding two others, murdering the daughter of an LAPD captain and her boyfriend, and promising to take out additional cops and their families. As the search for Dorner picked up steam, a group of officers guarding the house of a LAPD official living on the women’s delivery route opened fire on their blue Toyota Tacoma delivery van when it approached the house. Miraculously, the women were uninjured.

Nevertheless, the officers’ reckless actions that morning were a flagrant disregard of police policy governing the use of force. Although Beck conceded the point, he declined to order any punishment, outraging not only the mayor but the president of the Police Commission.

Other headline-grabbing accusations, however, were comparatively minor. Critics complained about the light discipline meted out to a white, well-connected LAPD officer who had pulled a gun on a black man in a bar during an off-duty dispute and then lied to investigators. And there was a flap involving whether Beck had known that his daughter—who was both an LAPD officer and a member of the department’s equestrian unit— had signed off on the sale of one of her personally owned horses to the department.

Collectively, however, the incidents began tarring Beck with the image of a leader excusing his officers for a grievously careless use of deadly force, and of someone who not only played favorites when it came to discipline, but was involved in a possible case of nepotism.

Venal sins, at best.

Then a real bombshell hit. On August 9, just three days before the scheduled announcement of Beck’s rehiring, a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that the LAPD had been cooking the crime books. They’d done so, the Times discovered, by downgrading the number of serious violent felonies reported in its annual statistics, and filing the felony assaults as misdemeanors instead.

Using public-records requests, the Times originally had asked the LAPD for its annual crime data spanning much of the preceding decade. When the department balked, the Times finally agreed to accept data for a single year: from early October 2012 through September 2013—covering 97,000 crimes.

Times reporters Joel Rubin and Ben Poston discovered that the LAPD “had misclassified nearly 1,200 violent crimes during [that] one year span…including hundreds of stabbings, beatings and robberies…”

Had these crimes been properly classified as the aggrieved assaults they actually were, the Times concluded, “the total aggravated assaults… would have been almost 14 percent higher than the official figure [released by the LAPD.]”

Beck and the department responded by saying, essentially, that mistakes are inevitable when you’re dealing with such a large number of crimes. But when the Times then reviewed the findings, it discovered that the erroneous categorizations hadn’t been random; and that nearly all of the misclassified crimes had “turned a serious crime into a minor one” which consequently hadn’t turned up in the department’s major-crimes report.

Pressure to Show Crime Decline

No one, at least in public, held Beck directly responsible for the misfilings, or suggested that he even knew about them. But the pressure to show crime reductions was coming from the top down and, as numerous LAPD sources told the Times, it caused commanding officers, division captains and investigating officers to constantly report reductions in serious crimes; and some allegedly had responded to that by deliberately misfiling those crimes.

Such strategies had been used in other cities. John A. Eterno, a retired New York City police captain, professor, and co-author with former John Jay Prof. Eli Silverman of The Crime Numbers Game, wrote in 2012 that within the New York Police Department “crimes are being downgraded; crime scenes revised, and the seriousness of the crime downplayed.”

“Baltimore, New Orleans, even Paris,” added Eterno, had been caught doing the same, “emulating New York’s tactics.” And now so had Los Angeles.

Nevertheless, despite what looked like a major breach of the public trust, Charlie Beck’s accomplishments were substantial enough that on August 12, 2014—just three days after the Times released its blockbuster expose—the Los Angeles Police Commission voted 4-1 to rehire him.

The Los Angeles Times story, however, continued to cast a shadow over the LAPD. In October, when the LAPD released its latest major-crime data, overall violent crime, it turned out, was up for the first time in 11 years— up by 7.5 percent.

It was pushed up by— guess what? A sudden dramatic increase of almost 20 percent in aggravated assaults.

Meanwhile, the pattern of misclassification remains under investigation by the LAPD’s Inspector General. It’s unlikely to reveal an order from Beck to downgrade crimes. But then he didn’t need to. When you make clear that low crime numbers are a paramount consideration in promotions and assignments, you’re providing a very strong incentive for your officers to meet their production goals.

Those incentives have caused serious damage to Beck’s reputation and to the image of the new, reformed LAPD. The department has now become the prime example of the pitfalls associated with the seminal 1990s innovation introduced by Beck’s mentor (and predecessor) Bill Bratton: the policing-by-the-numbers pressure-cooker known as CompStat, where computerized data is mapped and analyzed, and command level brass and division captains are held accountable for meeting crime reduction goals.

Nationally, the LAPD cheating scandal has only underscored similar cheating charges leveled at the NYPD by highly reputable critics, making it increasingly clear that CompStat, as presently practiced, comes with its own set of glaringly real problems crying out to be systemically addressed.

Meanwhile, back in LA, for all those liberals and police reformers who loved Charlie Beck divorce is not yet in order. But the thrill is gone.

Joe Domanick is associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay and West Coast Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. His new book, Blue: The Ruin and Redemption of the LAPD will be published by Simon & Schuster in July 2015. He welcomes comments from readers.

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