Chief Beck Doesn't Speak for Most L.A. Cops on AZ Law

In my last column, I reflected on the disappointing but not altogether unsurprising news that Charlie Beck, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, had spoken out against Arizona’s new law on illegal immigrants, SB 1070. In that column I described Beck as an honorable man, as indeed I’ve known him to be for more than twenty years. But a number of those who posted comments on the column, and some who e-mailed me directly, suggested I was being too charitable to the man. In speaking falsely about the law, they said, either through willful ignorance or in the service of a political agenda, Chief Beck has in fact acted dishonorably. It’s a fair point, and one that raises a broader issue regarding police work and politics.

One must be wary in listening to police chiefs who claim to speak on behalf of their rank-and-file officers, especially when it comes to issues as politically sensitive as this one. Chances are that the chief’s publicly espoused views are diametrically opposed to those held by most of the cops serving under him. Chief Beck’s pronouncement on SB 1070 is but the most recent example of this.

Like any major city in America one could name, Los Angeles is governed by people of the political left but policed by people of the right. You may find the occasional conservative walking the corridors of L.A. City Hall (a lone member of the city council voted against a boycott of Arizona), and you may find a liberal here and there in the police department, but it is safe to say that those in the city’s government and those in its police department are about as ideologically unaligned as any two groups can be.  Even those cops who might start their careers in a leftward frame of mind soon veer to the right as they confront the twin realities of seeing so much money taken from them in taxes while doing a job that offers such an unrivaled view of how that money is spent.

But that rightward tack, generally a steady progression in police officers working patrol and other field assignments, must be reversed by any cop harboring ambition for high rank in his department. Those seeking to ascend into the upper levels of the command structure, most especially anyone aspiring to be chief, must learn to embrace the liberal policies in vogue at City Hall, or at least feign doing so convincingly.

Which brings us to Chief Beck and his views on Arizona and SB 1070. In circulating among my coworkers these last few weeks, I’ve yet to encounter even one who expressed an opinion similar to Chief Beck’s on the matter. In fact, whenever I’ve heard the subject raised, most of my colleagues said they would have preferred to see Beck keep his opinions on the Arizona law to himself, as the airing of them served no purpose but to further spread the many falsehoods about the law already in circulation. Moreover, it is unseemly for a police chief to show disdain for a law duly considered and enacted through the democratic process. The people of Arizona have spoken, and it is not for people from outside the state, least of all a police chief, to wag fingers and tell them they have erred.

In criticizing SB 1070, Chief Beck was most emphatically not speaking on behalf of most LAPD officers, but rather on behalf of the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, who selected Beck as chief and whose position on illegal immigration is well known. Whatever Beck’s true opinions on these issues might be, if they differ one iota from the mayor’s, he took care to keep those differences to himself during the interviews leading up to his appointment.

It’s also been amusing (though embarrassing) to witness the political preening on display by those in Los Angeles city government who believe that police officers in Arizona will soon be cutting the ribbons on the new concentration camps into which all those suspected illegal immigrants are to be deposited next month. Councilman Paul Koretz, who as a Jew presumably should know better, likened Arizona to Germany of the 1930s. “If this [law] was being proposed at the federal level,” he said, “I would think we were absolutely at the very beginnings of what went on in Nazi Germany. It is not much different.” (Mr. Koretz, like so many others, is apparently ignorant of the fact that SB 1070 actually mirrors federal law already on the books.)