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.