When Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck retires in June, he’ll leave to his successor the best police department in the city’s history—one that’s no longer the hated, pugnacious symbol of repression it once was, or a primary instigator of the class and race volatility that once made the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) infamous throughout the world, and ignited two of the bloodiest American riots of the 20th century.
The principal reason for the old LAPD’s notorious reputation was myopic, insular leadership, sometimes megalomaniac and self-servingly driven, sometimes stubbornly, existentially dead, and deadly racist in its intent and execution. This was particularly true of those who led the department in the half century between 1950 and 2002.
First, because the dramatic demographic, economic and social changes experienced by Los Angeles over the past half century are shared by many other urban centers across the nation. That includes: growing homeless populations, too-high crime rates, and large immigrant populations living in daily dread of being deported.
Such issues may differ in detail from place to place. But regardless of a city’s size or special challenges, it is dangerously easy to slip back into the repressive policing reviled by so many Americans today.
All it would take to undo much of the trust and goodwill earned by the LAPD over the past 15 years, for example, is a string of controversial incidents in one of its volatile divisions that could provoke a riot—if it’s badly handled by a new chief without the “right stuff.”
Searching for a chief with the right stuff begins with selecting someone with the right temperament and experience. In Los Angeles, that means someone with a cosmopolitan understanding of their city’s extraordinarily diverse population, and a keen awareness of how each police division needs to be individually policed to meet the expectations of today’s politically aware and vocal city dwellers—especially communities of color.
But it also means understanding what went wrong—and right—with previous appointments. The history of Los Angeles police chiefs from the 1950s through the 1990s is replete with examples; and is also the story of most American police leaders of that era.
Mostly white men, they were stubbornly resistant to change and innovation; and, unable to conceive of anything beyond the big stick to reduce crime. They either wouldn’t—or didn’t know how to—accommodate the cultural and political transformations unfolding during their watch.
Take, for instance, the LAPD’s Bill Parker.
Chief from 1950-1966, he was a police leader who seemed ideal for the challenges of his time. The major issue facing Parker in 1950 was the LAPD’s historic, on-the-take corruption. A true, innovative reformer he brought the endemic dishonesty and abasement of his department to an immediate and impressive end—a step the police in New York and Chicago didn’t take until decades later.
But by the 1960s, Parker had grown old, imperious and autocratic. He was unable to tolerate dissenting opinions or criticism. Most disconcertingly, Parker’s racism was hard to miss. Once, he denounced all those “wild tribes from Mexico” pouring into his city that had to be contained. (Los Angeles Times, 1/29/59)
To deal with them—and most especially to control black Angelinos—he devised the intrusive, often brutal “occupying force” policing strategy in black L.A. that became the department’s hallmark.
As the city’s African American newspaper, The Sentinel put it: “Hardly a day passes without…physical evidence of beatings [in the black community by LA cops.]…led by a chief who has shown an unbelievable contempt for our Negro and Mexican American communities.” (Los Angeles Sentinel, 8/17/61)
All of which led to both the 1965 Watts’ Riots and set the stage the 1992 L.A Riots. Parker, in short, embodied being an exemplary chief for his time and place, as well as the kind of disaster that can happen when he or she is not.
Ed Davis, chief from 1969-1978, and later a California state senator (1980-1992), shared Parker’s world view and many of his most egregious leadership qualities. But the bullying manner in which he dealt with conflict and adversity should be a red flag to anyone choosing a new chief. Smart, big and mean, Davis utterly, uncompromisingly, believed the LAPD should be accountable only to him. His response to any perceived criticism was high-decibel public bombast.
To take one example, when a local TV reporter decided to investigate a raft of bad LAPD shootings, Davis ordered the reporter’s head-shot photo placed on all targets at the police academy shooting range, and stickers with the last name of the reporter pasted on patrol-car rear bumpers reading, [Wayne] “Satz Sucks.”
As Davis’ immediate predecessor, LAPD Chief Tom Redden who served briefly 1967-1969, later pointed out: “When Ed Davis fought with everybody, the cop on the street thought he could fight with anyone, too.”
And that’s what L.A. cops did over the ensuing decades. They copied his behavior and, in the process incited trouble and anger.
Daryl Gates, chief from 1978-1992, possessed just about every red-flag quality to avoid in a new chief. He was stubborn, unwilling to compromise, and displayed an arrogance so profound that he refused to listen to, or work with, civilian oversight entities or leaders in black or brown communities. He saw his troops as his only constituency and would defend them no matter how outrageous their behavior—which inevitably encouraged abuses of police power.
Nor did he care that L.A.’s politics, culture and demography were dramatically changing; or that vast numbers of Angelinos felt impotent to change the department and had come to fiercely hate it.
With Gates as chief for 14 years, the 1992 Los Angeles Riots were almost inevitable.
Willie Williams left his post as Philadelphia Police Commissioner to succeed Gates. The former Philadelphia Police Commissioner, Williams, who served from 1992 to 1997, was chosen because he was an outsider—the first in 40 years—and most explicitly, because he was African American. But he possessed none of the qualities needed to be the new reform chief of a riot-torn city.
He arrived knowing no one and trusting no one, and made no allies. Incurious and inept, he lacked the skills and energy to gain acceptance within the department or to reform it.
Unceremoniously dismissed five years after being hired, Williams represented a missed opportunity for meaningful reform. The Williams lesson should be a warning to Los Angeles commissioners currently examining new applicants—as well as to other cities experiencing a change in senior police management.
- Thoroughly vet your candidates;
- Avoid choosing a chief because he or she is a symbol. (The job’s too big and important for that.)
Bernard Parks, who succeeded Williams in 1997, was also ill-suited for the job. Smart, and knowledgeable, the 32-year LAPD veteran knew his city, and was highly regarded by his own black community, downtown politicians and department insiders. But like his predecessors, he thought he could run the LAPD as his own private fiefdom, and treat critics and the press with disdain.
He also had a quality that must be avoided in a new chief.
He was imperious—headstrong and authoritarian. So thoroughly did his inappropriately harsh and indiscriminate discipline and top-down management alienate his troops, that they lost confidence in him. Parks never got it back, and thus could not continue as an effective leader.
The lesson was clear to Charlie Beck, who served under Parks as an ambitious young officer (and inherited his seat a decade and a half later). “The way a chief treats his cops is the way that they will treat the community,” Beck later told me. “If you treat cops like fools, or if you’re over-dependent on harsh discipline, that’s what they’ll learn [and act out] on the street.”
Beck’s immediate predecessor, Bill Bratton, changed the paradigm. As chief from 2002-2009, Bratton was confident, reform-minded, and willing to listen. In L.A. he followed his playbook as New York Police Commissioner in the 1990s. He recruited smart people and encouraged his field captains to freely innovate, and to tailor their strategies according to each individual division’s needs.
He made the LAPD a thinking organization, not one that was glued to an antiquated police manual, and afraid to take the initiative.
The clear lesson: A confident but flexible, innovative chief is a must.
Finally, Charlie Beck.
Los Angeles and other cities in search of new leadership would do well to look at Beck as a model. Since he took over from Bratton, Beck used his strong interpersonal skills to forge ties with the opinion-makers and lever-pullers in communities, and with political groups throughout the city.
His political intelligence was manifest in how he worked successfully both with a liberal police commission and a conservative police union to reinforce and expand the behavioral/cultural changes begun under Bratton. During his tenure, all patrol cars and officers were equipped with cameras. The department’s shooting policy was also altered to include training officers to avoid the use of lethal force when possible by de-escalating tense situations.
His big-picture managerial skills also extended to dealing with his troops. He got buy-in from the rank and file for his reforms by treating all LAPD officers with the same respect he expected them to show when dealing with the public. By modeling his collegial working style and measured responses in controversial situations, he exemplified how his officers should deal with conflict.
Bratton and Beck have given Los Angeles an important gift: a police department that once notoriously defied progressive reform for decades that’s become a model for the nation.
The next Los Angeles police chief will need to have Beck’s extraordinary political skills, Bratton’s confidence and openness to change, and some of the strong-willed management skills (without the arrogance) of their predecessors.
The goal of L.A.’s police commission—as well as reform-minded police oversight bodies throughout America—should now be to avoid at all costs a new chief that could set the clock moving backward.
History has shown how difficult it is in policing to get things right.
Joe Domanick, Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, and West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report, is the author of two books on the LAPD. Newspaper references above can be found in his first book, “To Protect and to Serve: The LAPD’s Century of War on the City of Dreams,” published in 1994. His latest book, “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing,” is now out in paperback. Joe welcomes readers’ comments.