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Charlie Beck led the LAPD with smarts and savvy, but will police shootings taint his legacy?

Charlie Beck led the LAPD with smarts and savvy, but will police shootings taint his legacy?
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck after a Police Commission meeting on Oct. 3, 2017. (Los Angeles Times)

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck's tenure has helped answer questions that lingered after the Rampart consent decree ended and outsider Chief William J. Bratton stepped down: Has L.A.'s policing culture permanently changed? Or with outsider chiefs and federal monitors gone, will the Los Angeles Police Department return to its brutal, secretive and racially-tinged past?

A department veteran who, under Bratton's tutelage, became a true believer in data, transparency and change, Beck helped instill a more open, reform-oriented culture. He was successful in part because he's smart and his heart was in the right place, but also because he is old-school LAPD, son of a cop, sibling to and father of cops. His embrace of departmental reform in the post-Rampart era was a strong signal to the rank-and-file, to the city's political leaders and to communities that often suffered brutal policing tactics that the new thinking and new practices were there to stay.

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Beck announced Friday that he would step down in June, before the end of his second and final five-year term.

Even though he is not elected, he is a savvy politician who correctly read what the mayor, the Police Commission and the people of Los Angeles wanted from him and what to an extent he was able to deliver: low crime, no scandals, little controversy. He became adept at the regular radio interview and the soundbite on immigration enforcement and criminal justice reform.

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Activists’ calls for Beck’s firing became a common feature at weekly commission meetings.


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At a time of national awakening and outrage over police shootings of unarmed African American men and boys, Beck and the LAPD often looked good in comparison, at least for a while.

But there have been troubling exceptions. Just days after a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., LAPD officers shot another unarmed African American man, Ezell Ford, in Los Angeles. Beck concluded that the shooting was justified despite his police commission's finding to the contrary. His action, and Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey's decision a year ago not to prosecute — along with numerous other officer-involved shootings — have exacerbated tension between the department and many of the communities it patrols.

So has Beck's decision to respond to an increase in violent crime in South Los Angeles with increased patrols and what amounts to an L.A.-style stop-and-frisk policy — automobile stops for arguably pretextual reasons such as broken taillights, in order to search for weapons.

Did the tactic work? The violence eventually abated, but not before police reopened old wounds and reinvigorated anti-police sentiment in communities that felt over-patroled. Activists' calls for Beck's firing became a common feature at weekly commission meetings.

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Meanwhile, although Los Angeles continues to enjoy historically low crime rates, the declines began a slight but troubling reverse in 2015. The scandal-free ledger was tainted by the 2013 rampage of fired officer Christopher Dorner, who posted a manifesto of charges against the department, then killed four people and wounded three others before dying as police closed in on him. LAPD officers wounded three innocent bystanders in their sometimes frenetic quest to track down Dorner. There was a scandal of another sort when police cadets, aided by an officer, stole cruisers and other equipment. Their exploits went undetected for weeks.

Beck earns high marks for managing an inherent tension faced in recent decades by every LAPD chief. In a city in which public safety accounts for more than 80% of the city budget, he faced strong pressure in City Hall and many communities to economize. At the same time, many of the same critics want him to provide better patrols in lower-crime parts of the city while still being able to respond in force to spates of violence in high-crime communities, and while employing a more community-oriented approach to policing citywide. Accomplishing all of those goals simultaneously is simply not possible.

Beck is the fourth LAPD chief to be appointed under a key change that followed the 1992 riots, which were sparked by acquittals of officers in the brutal beating of African American motorist Rodney King. After decades in which chiefs could retain their jobs virtually for life, leaders of the department are now appointed to a single five-year term and can be appointed to a second — but no more. Chiefs Willie Williams and Bernard Parks were denied second terms. Bratton won a second but left early for other opportunities. Beck's June departure date leaves plenty of time for the commission and Mayor Eric Garcetti to consider a host of would-be replacements among the younger brass whom Beck has mentored.

It's imperative that Beck's successor be someone who can build on his legacy and continue moving the department down the path of reform.

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UPDATES:

3:45 p.m.: The article was updated with additional details.

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