Can the LAPD's Charlie Beck be “A Chief For His Time?”

Joe Domanick

Joe Domanick

In many ways, the six- year tenure of Charlie Beck as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has been a triumph. In October, Beck went to the White House with 130 other law enforcement leaders to meet with President Barack Obama to discuss the future of criminal justice, and it was Beck who was chosen to speak with the president on the group's behalf.

Today, under the leadership of Beck and his mentor and predecessor, William J. Bratton, the LAPD has gone from appallingly bad to a national model of progressive police reform.

But here in Los Angeles, Beck isn't quite the hero he once was. Like many other big city police chiefs – including other reformers like Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Baltimore's Anthony W. Batts, who have been forced to resign– he is under attack for his handling of officer-involved shootings, especially those of unarmed civilians, the kind caught on videos that cause viewers to sit up and exclaim: “I can't believe they just shot that guy!”

On one recent occasion, Beck joined that chorus.

The May 2015 fatal shooting of Brandon Glenn, a white, unarmed homeless man in Venice, was so incomprehensible, that after viewing a security-camera video of the incident Beck said that he had not seen the “extraordinary circumstances” required to justify the shooting under LAPD use of force rules.

In response, Craig Lally, the president of the LAPD's powerful union, the Police Protective League, denounced the chief's comments as “completely irresponsible.”

That response illustrates the unease in L.A., and the nation, over the volatile issue of officer-involved shootings, and it says a great deal about the challenges facing Beck as he tries to balance the demands of his often conflicting constituencies: Politicians concerned about crime; minority communities outraged by police abuses; clamoring civil libertarians; a critical media; and the concerns of his own troops, worried that new use-of-force policies, closer scrutiny and tougher sanctions threaten their careers and their lives.

If Beck stumbles while seeking the right balance, he risks the department's carefully re-built reputation, not to mention his job—a tale that Los Angeles has seen before.

Daryl Gates, chief during the law and order 1980s and early 1990s, had a constituency of one: his own troops. He never saw a brutal LAPD incident or outrageous police shooting that he wouldn’t combatively defend. After the Rodney King beating and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, he had lost all support other than that of his demoralized troops, which couldn't save his career or his department's reputation.

Willie Williams replaced Gates. An outsider from Philadelphia, he came to L.A. knowing noone and failed to develop any constituencies, including within the department. Noone objected when the Los Angeles Police Commission dismissed him. Bernard Parks, an LAPD veteran, replaced Wiilliams. He was arrogant and uncooperative with his civilian bosses and the department’s rank-and-file. The union went to war against him, joining Mayor James Hahn and commission in forcing his departure.

Bratton was next. The former New York City Police Commissioner had tangled with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and gotten fired in New York. In L.A., he courted two mayors, the media, the city's black leadership, the union, and his division captains. And when controversy erupted, he was decisive.

On May Day, 2007, for example, about 150 LAPD officers suddenly attacked a festive, peaceful crowd of protestors and reporters in MacArthur Park, mowing them down with their batons. Bratton quickly responded by demoting and reassigning the highest ranking officer at the scene, and reassigning the second-ranking officer. And he ordered officer-retraining in crowd control and dealing with the media.

On the issue of police shootings, however, Charlie Beck has been far from decisive. In 2015, police shootings in Los Angeles have almost doubled compared to last year, increasing from 23 to 45, as of mid-November. Nineteen people have died at the hands of the police, and two of those deaths— Glenn's and that of another unarmed homeless man, Charly Keunang, on skid row in March—have caused protests and controversy.

Except for his gut reaction to the Glenn shooting, Beck's overall responses have been uncharacteristically opaque. Like Bratton, he's made himself available for numerous community meetings, and he's met with protestors and the media. But little changed from his standard support for “full, fair” investigations of the controversial shootings.

Beck, and the status quo, came in for particular criticism in June, when, after 13 long months of “full, fair” inquiry, he finally ruled that an earlier questionable shooting was “in policy”—that of unarmed, mentally ill Ezell Ford, who was stopped by two officers and fatally shot during a struggle with them in August 2014.

He also implemented policy on body-worn and dashboard camera that allows officers to see the videos before they make their use-of-force reports, but keeps the footage under wraps for almost everyone else. The decision pacified the Police Protective League, but left civil libertarians and other critics angry and disillusioned.

Meanwhile, the Police Commission—which is statutorily charged with overseeing and setting department policy—decided to challenge Beck’s decision on the Ford shooting, overruling his in-policy finding and introducing a new holistic criterion for judging the LAPD’s use of force. The Ford shooting was out-of-policy, the commission declared, because Ford shouldn't have been stopped by the police in the first place.

Attempting once again to balance constituencies, Beck sent a pointed but restrained message of support to his troops in response to the commission's potentially game-changing policy shift. Months later, he announced a new LAPD award, on a par with the department’s highest honor, for heroism, the Preservation of Life Medal. It will go to officers who show restraint when they could legitimately use deadly force.

The union's response came on its website: “A terrible idea that will put officers' lives in danger.”

A case can be made that the chief's careful maneuvering—and close-to-the-vest responses— are the best that can be expected, given the conflicting desires of the union, the commission and the scrutiny of protestors and the media. He knows that trouble with the union is serious business. As a former street cop, he understands that policing in dog-eat-dog, violence-prone America is a dangerous and dirty business.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles and the LAPD are heading into 2016 without a resolution for some of the hardest decisions of 2015. What will the punishment be for the officer who shot Ezell Ford? Why are the Glenn and the Keunang investigations dragging on?

Charlie Beck once told me that “a good police chief needs to be a chief for his time.”

That time is now, when controversial police shootings are the dominant issue, and even the very best police leaders, like Beck, are facing a deep public desire for a revolution in how Americans are being policed. It's a moment that the chief needs to seize and make his own.

An earlier version of this essay appeared yesterday as an Op Ed in The Los Angeles Times. Joe Domanick is the West Coast bureau chief of and associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. His latest book is “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing.”He welcomes readers' comments.

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