After 41 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, the last nine as its chief, Charlie Beck retired on Wednesday, handing his badge and collar stars to his successor, Michel Moore (yes, that’s how he spells his first name).
The occasion of Beck’s retirement has been marked by a good deal of adoring press attention, not the least of which was a 2,200-word retrospective on his career in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times. The story, by Times writer Cindy Chang, noted some of Beck’s missteps as chief, such as when a horse owned by his daughter, also an LAPD officer, made its way into the department’s stable, but it was otherwise largely hagiographic. (The Los Angeles Police Foundation, a private nonprofit, paid Beck’s daughter $6,000 for the horse and then donated it to the department’s mounted unit, where Beck’s daughter was assigned. Beck at first denied knowledge of the arrangement, but when related documents bearing his signature were produced he admitted approving it.)
To one whose career with the LAPD was contemporaneous with Beck’s (I joined the department shortly after he did, and I retired a few years ago), the Times’ story was vexing in that it displayed the type of historical revisionism about the LAPD for which the paper has long been known. The headline captured this perfectly: “Retiring after more than 40 years,” it read, “LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has evolved with the department he leads.” Implicit in this talk of “evolving” is the accusation that the LAPD of Beck’s early career was retrograde in its dealing with crime and disorder in the city. “I am the LAPD,” Chang quotes Beck as saying. She goes on to characterize the LAPD of the 1980s and ‘90s in a manner familiar to longtime readers of the Times. Beck and the LAPD, writes Chang, “have evolved in tandem, as the old LAPD of battering rams and black youths being handcuffed with no provocation has given way to police officers who coach youth football in Watts.”
Beck, writes Chang, “maintains a trace of old school LAPD brashness, yet is known as an architect of key reforms, including a community policing strategy that places officers as problem solvers and allies in the city’s most violent neighborhoods.”
Besides being deliberately misleading, it ignores the paper’s own reporting from years ago. This is insulting to those of us who, like Beck, worked in South Los Angeles during the ‘80s and ‘90s, when crime in Los Angeles was far, far worse than it is today, and when the LAPD had far fewer officers on the streets. Consider: In 2017, with about 10,000 officers on the force, the LAPD investigated 282 homicides, an impressive figure in a city of 4 million residents. But compare this with the years from 1980 to 1995, when the city averaged almost 900 homicides per year, with three years, 1991-1993, when there were over a thousand. And remember that for every homicide there were two or three non-fatal shootings, all of which demanded the attention of patrol officers and detectives. Over those same 16 years the LAPD grew in size from just 6,670 officers to 8,534, every one of whom was just trying to keep up with the mayhem. If there were no officers coaching football in Watts, it’s because they were so busy racing from shooting call to shooting call there was time for little else. And, to the extent we were able to accomplish any “community-based policing,” we met with law-abiding residents of the areas most affected by this violence who pleaded with us to do something about the gangs responsible for most of it. None of this is mentioned in the Times’ story, leaving the uninformed reader with the impression that crime declined in Los Angeles because the LAPD has “evolved.” This is hogwash on stilts. Crime has decreased in Los Angeles because of the efforts of police officers and detectives that resulted in the incarceration of lots and lots of truly despicable people. To cite just one example, I was one of many officers who in October 1984 responded to a horrific incident in which gang members, settling a score over a stolen car, opened fire outside a party, killing five people and wounding five others. Keith Tyrone “Ace Capone” Fudge, a member of the Van Ness Gangsters street gang, was sentenced to death for the killings. (Alas, he lives on at San Quentin State Prison.)
Is there anyone so naïve as to think that Fudge or any of his like-minded contemporaries, of which there were thousands, would have altered their behavior if there had but been a police officer around to coach them in football?
It’s easy to pretend that all the football coaching and other community-oriented policing practiced in Los Angeles today is responsible for the current low levels of crime. But if the city were seeing 900 murders or more every year as it once did, people would be in an uproar to demand that cops not waste their time in feel-good endeavors and start locking up the bad guys. That’s what was demanded of us in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and it’s historically myopic to think otherwise.