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L.A.'s New Top Cop: 'Conservative' on Crime, 'Progressive' in His Policing?

Last Tuesday, Charlie Beck was sworn in as the 55th chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. As I wrote two weeks ago, his selection by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was well received by rank-and-file officers, for unlike his predecessor William Bratton, who in 2002 was hired on as a turnaround artist to cure the dysfunction engendered by ten years of abysmally poor leadership, Beck, a 32-year veteran of the department, is a dyed-in-the-deep-blue-wool LAPD cop.

For all his many successes with the LAPD, Bratton remained an aloof and often absentee leader, spending large amounts of time away from the city and, while in town, preferring the company of celebrities and east-coast cronies to that of his own police officers. Visitors to Bratton’s office were often struck by the array of photographs on the walls in which Bratton was posed with this or that movie star, author, or politician. Conspicuously absent were pictures of Bratton with any actual police officers. It’s inconceivable that Charlie Beck would put up such a display to his own ego as he settles into his office at the new Police Administration Building in downtown Los Angeles.

Sadly, the celebration that has attended Beck’s installation as chief has not been without some revisionist history, some of it supplied by Beck himself. In the Nov. 15 Los Angeles Times, for example, writer Joel Rubin told of Beck’s “evolving philosophy of policing.” “In recent interviews and speeches,” Rubin wrote, “Beck has shied away from talking in detail about specific incidents he witnessed or took part in, but he has not tried to shun responsibility for being a part of the force during what he refers to as the ‘dark days.’”

From the perspective of one who serves in the lower ranks of the department, and has done so since those so-called dark days, it’s often interesting to note how people “evolve” as they ascend the LAPD’s career ladder. The higher one goes in the organization, the greater the temptation to hew to the city’s prevailing political climate. Antonio Villaraigosa, who before going into politics worked for the ACLU in Los Angeles, is famously liberal, so anyone who aspired to succeed William Bratton knew what script to follow. Beck played the game skillfully. “Charlie Beck is a conservative when it comes to criminals,” said Villaraigosa in introducing Beck as his choice for chief, “and a progressive in his policing.”

That dichotomy must have sounded good to the mayor’s speech writer and the mayor himself, but I’m still trying to figure out what it might mean.

To his great credit, Beck is one of the few staff officers in the department who seems unchanged from the time he was promoted to sergeant some 25 years ago. Unlike so many of his peers, and most unlike his predecessor, he still mixes easily with working cops. More importantly, having come from their ranks, he empathizes with them. But judging from Rubin’s piece in the L.A. Times, Beck seems to have bought into the fiction that the LAPD was little more than a cesspool of corruption and backward thinking prior to being reformed under the magical ministrations of William Bratton. Those may indeed have been dark days in the LAPD, but not necessarily for the reasons some would have you believe.

From 1980 through 1992, a period that saw the explosion of violence attendant to the rise of street gangs and the crack cocaine trade, the city of Los Angeles averaged a horrific 881 murders per year. (By comparison, the city saw 381 murders in 2008 and, if current trends continue, there will be even fewer this year.) Yet through that same 13-year period, the LAPD never had more than 8,400 officers, with the number often dipping below 7,000.

Today there are about 10,000 officers on the job in Los Angeles, and though the city’s population has increased by nearly a million since 1980, the level of violent crime is less than half of what it was then. The number of police officers a city maintains and how they are deployed are political decisions, yet the failure of the LAPD to combat the rise in crime through the ‘80s is most often blamed on Daryl Gates, who served as chief of police from 1978 to 1992. It was the city government, not the police chief, that failed to fund an adequate response to the violent crime epidemic of the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Gates is regarded as particularly villainous at the Los Angeles Times, with whose editors he sparred throughout his tenure, and on whom the Times continues to heap unwarranted scorn. In his Nov. 15 piece on Beck, for example, Joel Rubin wrote of the LAPD of the late ‘70s.  “It was a time of flux,” wrote Rubin, “as Chief Ed Davis stepped down and Daryl F. Gates, a hard-line LAPD veteran, took over. Davis had flirted with the idea that police should build close ties with the communities they serve, but under Gates the department shifted back to an entrenched, paramilitary mentality.”

On this point Rubin has apparently adopted the blame-Gates ethos so prevalent at the Times and failed to do the necessary reporting. The facts are these: As an assistant chief under Davis, Gates implemented what was known as the Basic Car program, an early form of community policing in which designated officers served as community liaisons. When he became chief, Gates continued the program even as it met with resistance from then-Mayor Tom Bradley and members of the city council, who viewed these police officers as threats to their political power. It was these officers, after all, who were the most accessible representatives of city government, and they often instructed L.A. residents on how to demand improved service from their elected officials, instructions which very often included exhortations to raise hell with those who promised the world when they ran for office but, once elected, delivered little.

As one who lived through this municipal tug of war and recalls it well, I can say that Bradley was every bit as intransigent as Gates was accused of being, yet whenever the long-simmering feud between the two men is discussed in the L.A. Times, the blame for it is invariably placed solely on Gates. And, as Charlie Beck would surely recall, it was hard to emphasize community relations while we were racing from one shooting call to the next, as officers are seldom required to do today even in L.A.’s most violent neighborhoods.

But there is trouble ahead. In January, budget cuts will force the California Department of Corrections to release up to 30,000 “low-risk” prison inmates (as if there were such a thing), the greatest share of whom will return to the Los Angeles neighborhoods where they were arrested. And the city’s budget is no less bleak: though the LAPD has expanded to 10,000 officers in recent years it will grow no further, and the elimination of cash overtime in favor of compensatory time off will result in a net loss of hundreds of officers on the streets.

Charlie Beck might be as evolved and progressive as they come, but the combination of more criminals and fewer cops will pose a challenge for him. If he and the LAPD fail to meet it, Los Angeles might be in for more of those dark days.