Did LAPD Chief Charlie Beck deserve the new five-year contract he got Tuesday morning?
Did he gracefully sprint across the finish line with hands held high?
No, he stumbled and staggered, with a series of dubious disciplinary moves topped off by a Times expose Sunday on inaccurate crime statistics.
Appropriately, along with the many hard-earned pats on the back given to him by commissioners, Beck got a well-deserved kick in the pants. And so his second term won't be a victory lap, but a test of whether he can become the leader both the department and the city need him to be.
The four commissioners who voted in support of Beck — Steve Soboroff, Paula Madison, Sandra Figueroa-Villa and Kathleen Kim — touched on areas where improvement is needed, but spent most of their time praising the chief for declining crime rates and the building of community ties and trust.
And Beck does deserve a lot of credit. But it's worth noting that all four of those commissioners were appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has been a vocal supporter of Beck. And so you are left wondering precisely how independent Garcetti's appointees really are, no matter their claims or his.
The lone vote against a second term came from Rob Saltzman, the longest-serving commissioner and the only one to have been on the job through Beck's entire first five-year term as chief. Saltzman was appointed by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and on Tuesday — with Beck seated several feet away — he offered anything but a ringing endorsement of the chief.
Saltzman said that despite Beck's many extraordinary achievements, he had decided the LAPD would be better served "with new executive leadership."
The most important area where "significant improvement is needed," Saltzman said, is "in ensuring fairness and consistency in discipline and transparency and respect for civilian oversight."
Saltzman said he had reviewed many discipline reports and "found a number of cases to be troubling, either because the discipline applied appeared to me to be too lenient" or inconsistent with Beck's handling of similar cases.
"In some instances I have been especially concerned about the limited discipline applied to officers whose conduct in use-of-force cases was found by the commission to be out of policy," Saltzman added. "I conclude that the chief must do a better job demonstrating fairness and consistency in discipline."
Beck was golden until early this year, when he began tripping himself up with one bad call after another. In the first case, he barely slapped the wrists of several officers who took part in a disastrous shooting involving two bewildered newspaper delivery women who were mistaken for a cop killer.
Beck then went against a disciplinary board's decision to fire a well-connected cop who used racial slurs in an off-duty scuffle and then lied to investigators. Some of his own command staff disagreed with Beck's decision to suspend rather than fire the cop, Beck told me at the time. And there was plenty of grumbling from rank-and-file officers who said the chief had a pattern of inconsistency on discipline.
Beck also failed to notify the commission that some officers had tampered with video equipment on their patrol cars to avoid being monitored, and the department admitted that it had decided not to investigate the matter.
Less serious was the case of a horse the department bought from Beck's daughter, with the chief claiming he wasn't involved, even though his signature was on the deal. But then came a far more important matter, when Times reporters Joel Rubin and Ben Poston reported Sunday that nearly 1,200 violent crimes were classified as minor offenses in a one-year period ending in September of last year.
The LAPD explained that the system for keeping statistics can be error-prone, and that mistakes are inevitable when you have more than 100,000 serious offenses a year.
Nice try. But as The Times noted, the LAPD's miscoding of crimes was almost always "to turn a serious crime into a minor one." And furthermore, numerous current and former cops reported that there was pressure to meet crime-reduction goals.
"Whenever you reported a serious crime, they would find any way possible to make it a minor crime," said one retired lieutenant.
Crime has indeed dropped each year for 11 years, but if the LAPD plays games with the numbers, nobody's going to trust the department.
And you would think from the LAPD's response to the story that it was a happy participant in the newspaper's investigation. In fact, The Times had to fight for access to information, and was only given one year's worth of records despite requests for more. Now the department's inspector general has promised a broader investigation.
Look, it isn't easy to run a massive police department in the nation's second-largest city, and Beck has had many successes. But he has to be more consistent and transparent and avoid not just impropriety, but the appearance of it. It would be nice, as well, if the mayor, City Council and Police Commission occasionally policed the police as well as The Times does.
At the meeting, Saltzman said a longtime LAPD employee pulled him aside, noted all the recent stumbles, and said, "The LAPD is better than this."
Charlie Beck has another five years to prove him right.
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