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LAPD's Chief Beck has bigger problems than Waze

LAPD's role in a talk by former Mexican Mafia figure Rene Enriquez is a bigger problem than a traffic app

So much for the police-spotting peril of Waze, the navigation app that LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said puts his officers at risk by letting drivers know where they are.

On my four-mile drive this week from The Times' downtown office to Echo Park, I got three "heavy traffic ahead" warnings from Waze, but no alerts about the presence of officers — not even when I turned onto a street lined with patrol cars and headed into a community meeting that was wall-to-wall with cops.

Beck is tilting at windmills when he makes Waze a villain.

The chief has bigger problems he ought to be worrying about: rising crime, discontent among the rank-and-file and a brewing battle over how public to make the video recordings once officers are outfitted with body cameras.

Last week, his Police Departmentlanded in hot water for brokering a private meet-and-greet between a group of well-heeled business leaders and a onetime gang kingpin serving life in prison for murdering two people.

The executives — members of the exclusive Young Presidents' Organization — wanted to hear from someone with experience running a transnational crime operation. The Los Angeles Police Department eagerly obliged.

Officers squired former Mexican Mafia shot-caller Rene Enriquez from jail to a heavily guarded engagement in busy downtown Los Angeles, where he regaled the guests with tales of his criminal exploits — in the guise of business advice and on the taxpayers' dime.

It must have seemed like a good idea to someone. I can't imagine why.

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City officials hit the ceiling when the news got out, blasting the session as "inappropriate" and a "giant waste of resources."

Since then, the business group has agreed to reimburse the Police Department. But the price tag isn't the only thing that's fueling the uproar.

The private encounter reflects poor judgment by leaders of a force already battling perceptions that it runs on favoritism. The Young Presidents' Organization financially supports a worthy LAPD program that provides mentors and scholarships to children in Watts. But that shouldn't entitle the group to special treatment from the department.

That's the kind of deal-making that helped doom Sheriff Lee Baca, who wound up bending rules and putting cronies' advice ahead of his own values.

Beck defended the session with Enriquez when it first became public. "He offers a perspective on organizations and leadership that is unknown to much of this audience," he said.

Maybe so, but why is it the job of our Police Department to provide them with that?

LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing insists that the session had law enforcement value. About 20 local police executives and 100 business leaders attended, he said. "They learned how dangerous this organization is and how global they've become."

Which is why it seems dangerously cavalier to host a defector on the gang's hit list in a commercial building in a busy business district.

Beck concedes now that "mistakes were made," but that's not mea culpa enough. Downing said that if he had it to do over, he would have held the event in another area and invited more law officers.

Neither seems bothered by the circus-like aura of the function: Enriquez led in wearing shackles, hidden behind a screen as he reeled off his business credentials, then presented as the crime kingpin he is in a dramatic reveal.

Downing doesn't think the event was more hype than help, or that it glamorized gang life. He says Enriquez made an impact on the business leaders that night for what he is and what he is not.

"He reads the Wall Street Journal every day. He talks like a sophisticated CEO of a Fortune 500 company," Downing said. "But he's also dangerous, deliberately so. The executives were shocked by some of the things they heard.

"When we walked away, everybody was reminded that this individual is manipulative, deceptive, has two life terms and he's a criminal."

Of course he is; that's what makes his presence such a thrill.

And that's why this feels to me, from the outside looking in, like a dog-and-pony show orchestrated by cops for the sake of well-meaning business tycoons — who now have stories to share with their country club buddies about a gangster who built his business bonafides on murder and mayhem.

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Enriquez, 52, left the Mexican Mafia after 17 years and has been working — from behind bars — with law enforcement for more than 10 years. Last fall, a state parole board decided he had been redeemed enough to be eligible for release. Gov. Jerry Brown will make the final decision before the end of the month.

In his parole board hearing, Enriquez said he had been jumped into the gang before he reached his teens. He started using and selling drugs, graduated to stealing and fighting, and cycled in and out of juvenile lockups until he moved on to murder.

I don't doubt the man has leadership skills. He went to prison a heroin addict and hit man and helped guide the Mexican Mafia through its evolution from prison gang to international criminal enterprise.

That's the pedigree that led him to the stage to school business leaders that night.

I guess it's good the LAPD has found a use for him.

At the Echo Park meeting of the Police Commission I attended this week, I saw young men not so different from that kid Enriquez used to be.

The teenagers lined up at the mike to complain about harsh police treatment and a gang injunction process so unforgiving it brands them criminals and makes it hard to shed that identity. The grown men who have left their gangs and are trying to live crime-free lives said they can't even take their children to the park without being hassled by officers.

When, I wonder, are the rest of us going to pay attention to them?

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter @SandyBanksLAT

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