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LAPD Chief Charlie Beck needs to start earning our trust

If Charlie Beck gets a second term as LAPD chief, here's hoping he works to actually earn the public's trust
At the heart of the case against LAPD Chief Charlie Beck are complaints of lax and uneven discipline

I'm almost certain that Charlie Beck will be granted a second five-year term as Los Angeles police chief by the Police Commission next week. Crime is continuing to ease, and there's no obvious successor waiting in the wings.

But I hope Beck considers that less an endorsement than an opportunity to restore his image and actually earn the public's trust.

When Beck was tapped to succeed Bill Bratton, he was lauded as the rank-and-file guy, a respected commander with deep roots on the force and a broad understanding of both its problems and its promise.

But recent revelations suggest the chief has trouble distinguishing between loyalty to his cronies and loyalty to his mission: nurturing a strong, progressive department, with integrity as its cornerstone.

Beck promised transparency and fairness when he took office in 2009.

Instead, he's battling allegations of favoritism and evidence that he's been less than forthright with the Police Commission and, by extension, the public.

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The brouhaha over his daughter's horse is just the most recent example of a blunder by the chief.

Beck endorsed the purchase of George, a horse that belonged to his daughter, an officer in the LAPD's mounted unit. George is a good horse, the price was right and it may be a worthy deal.

But Beck failed to disclose to the Police Commission that his daughter benefited from the arrangement. He even denied any involvement, until The Times got hold of documents showing he'd signed off on the transaction.

How could the chief not see the taint of conflict of interest? All he had to do was be up front: The horse is owned by my daughter. Then it's the Police Commission's call.

The horse story broke as the department's inspector general is investigating whether Beck intervened in a disciplinary case involving a male sergeant accused of having improper relationships with female subordinates, including the chief's daughter. Critics claim Beck softened the sergeant's punishment to prevent him from airing embarrassing revelations.

Beck's response to that flap was to lash out at the media for teeing off on his daughter.

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At the heart of the case against the chief are complaints of lax and uneven discipline. Beck has fired at least as many officers as Bratton. But he's gone to bat, inexplicably, for officers found guilty of serious misconduct, both on and off the job.

That inconsistency has stoked resentment and cynicism among officers in a department still reeling from the fallout of the rampage by Christopher Dorner, the fired cop who blamed unfair disciplinary proceedings for his murderous rage.

A recent case seemed so overt, it even shocked police commissioners. Last spring, Beck overruled a disciplinary board's recommendation that an officer be fired for three counts of misconduct: provoking an off-duty confrontation with a man at a Norco bar, using racial slurs when local deputies questioned him, and making false statements during the LAPD's investigation.

The officer, Shaun Hillmann, was reportedly drunk and drew his gun during the contretemps. He didn't realize that a local deputy was recording his comments.

Beck decided that a three-month suspension was punishment enough for a cop who picked a fight, called a black man a "monkey" and then lied to LAPD officials about the encounter.

Hillmann happens to be the son and nephew of well-regarded LAPD veterans. But Beck insists that Hillman's connections didn't influence him at all. He simply favors education over punishment when officers make bad choices off the job.

But punishment can be an important educational tool.

This is not about whether Hillmann deserved a second chance. It's about the message the chief's leniency sends the public about his institution's values — and the standard that message sets for other officers on the force.

That's what troubles me about Beck's tenure. He doesn't seem to realize that every action he takes as chief is a referendum on his judgment, his priorities and the course of his department.

When investigators sit for months on a complaint about a detective's training class tirade — laced with coarse sexual and racial insults — that suggests the brass aren't bothered by the attitude behind the comments.

When the chief declines to investigate evidence of vandalism by officers, that emboldens rogues and undermines reform. A year ago, police discovered patrol car recorders in a South Los Angeles division had been disabled by officers after a colleague's misconduct, captured on a car's camera, led to criminal charges. Beck warned the officers at roll call, but decided not to try to find out who was responsible.

Beck seems less inclined to investigate than to sweep things under the rug. That's a troubling tendency, given the department's history and its fraught recovery process.

Chief Bratton had a federal consent decree to guide his work and back up his reforms. Now the decree has been lifted and that oversight is gone.

That gives Beck more freedom, but also more responsibility. Now the chief and the Police Commission are essentially on their own.

Reform under Beck has been a bumpy process and seems to me inexplicably stalled.

Last year the department conducted an internal review that allowed hundreds of employees to anonymously chronicle their concerns about the department. It was prompted by the Dorner case, which exposed deep rifts and broad concerns about discipline on the force.

Fifteen months later, those findings are still being privately studied and massaged. LAPD officials expect to present the report to the Police Commission by the end of the month — but after the very important question of whether Beck stays on is resolved.

That strikes me as odd.

I'd like to think the Police Commission would like more information than it can get from crime statistics and letters written by supporters or disgruntled cops. I'd like to believe the chief of police values transparency enough to have a real public dialogue about the challenges of the job.

I don't doubt that Charlie Beck is a good man, a good father, a good cop. But is he the best leader for our Police Department? It may take another five years for me to answer that.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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