Identity Politics Brushed Aside in LAPD Chief Selection

The waiting and speculation are over: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has selected Deputy Chief Charlie Beck to succeed William Bratton as chief of the LAPD.

Beck, 56, is a 32-year veteran of the department, and he was rumored to be the front-runner for the job ever since Bratton announced in August that he would be stepping down with three years remaining on his five-year contract. But even though Beck was believed to have the job in the bag, having received Bratton’s non-public endorsement as well as that of many business and community leaders, for those of us near the bottom of the LAPD’s chain of command there was nonetheless an element of suspense leading up to Tuesday’s official announcement.

Beck was one of three finalists for the job, the other two being Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell, who served as Bratton’s second in command, and Deputy Chief Michel Moore, the commanding officer of department operations in the San Fernando Valley (not to be confused with the similarly named rotund purveyor of pseudo-documentaries). Several other high-ranking LAPD officers and two police chiefs from other cities had applied for the job, but they all were eliminated through a winnowing process that included an initial screen-down by the city’s personnel department and a series of interviews with the five civilian police commissioners. Finally, Mayor Villaraigosa interviewed each of the three finalists twice over the the last week, signaling what may have been genuine indecision but, depending on whose account you believe, may instead have been a pretense of objectivity for a decision actually made long ago.

But no matter, for from the day Bratton announced he was pulling up stakes and heading back to New York, it was felt throughout the LAPD that if his successor was anyone other than Beck or McDonnell the rank and file would have viewed the selection process with suspicion. Both are well respected in the department, bringing them in sharp distinction from nearly all of their peers. But popularity with the troops has been known to be a hindrance to advancement within the LAPD. In 1997, for example, Bernard Parks was selected over Mark Kroeker, who was favored by an overwhelming majority of the rank and file.  Parks’s tenure was a disaster, marked by scandal, plummeting morale, and rising crime, and one assumes Villaraigosa gave Beck’s reputation within the department as much weight as he did his various endorsements.

Moore’s selection as a finalist was a bit of a mystery, as most in the department believed the commission would have chosen as the third finalist either Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger, the department’s highest-ranking black officer, or one of the LAPD’s two senior females, Assistant Chief Sharon Papa or Deputy Chief Sandy Jo MacArthur. (MacArthur even put up what amounted to a campaign website where she touted herself for the job.) What a surprise it was to see identity politics brushed aside to leave the most qualified people vying for the position.

In his announcement on Tuesday, Villaraigosa took time to praise both McDonnell and Moore, and he spoke at length about how difficult his decision had been. And it may indeed have been, as Beck and McDonnell seemed fairly well matched in both experience and temperament, while Moore was seen as the upstart with the boldest ideas on how the LAPD should be managed. While Moore’s inclusion in the top three was a surprise, the Los Angeles Times reports he so impressed the police commissioners during his interview that they placed him first among the finalists in their order of preference (an opinion I can confidently say is not widely shared among the department’s rank and file). The article also said Bratton’s heavy-handedness in trying to promote Beck as his successor nearly cost Beck the job.

And what to make of Charlie Beck? It was heartening to watch him get emotional as he delivered his remarks Tuesday in front of the Getty House, L.A.’s official mayoral residence. “I woke up this morning and I was thrilled to be a member of the Los Angeles Police Department,” he said, “and I’m thrilled for my new role.” Even as he acknowledged the LAPD’s sometimes ignominious recent history, the pride he has in the department was evident as he choked up while discussing his deep roots in Los Angeles law enforcement. There to witness the event were his father, a retired LAPD deputy chief; his wife, a retired L.A. County sheriff’s deputy; his sister, a retired LAPD detective; and his daughter, a patrol officer assigned to LAPD’s Hollywood Division. Unable to attend was his son, a police recruit who will graduate from the LAPD academy in December. How gratifying it was to see this pride on such unselfconscious display. “This is not just a job to me,” he said, “this is who I am.”

The contrast with his predecessor was striking. Give William Bratton his due: he took over a department in disarray after ten years of ineffectual leadership, and he left it in far better condition than would have seemed even remotely possible when he arrived seven years ago. But he is a turnaround artist; he was never truly invested in Los Angeles or the LAPD except insofar as they provided a stepping stone to his next job. To the extent he displayed any emotions at all, they seldom veered beyond annoyance and outright anger. On those rare occasions he wore the department uniform he looked uncomfortable and out of place, like a bad actor playing a cop on television. How welcome it is to now see a police chief who wears that uniform so proudly.

Best of luck, Chief Beck.