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Charlie Beck's prolific pen: A look back at the LAPD chief's letters

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Over the years, @LAPDChiefBeck has sent letters defending his department
.@LAPDChiefBeck's missives to @latimesopinion peel back the curtain on the LAPD

Since taking the helm of the Los Angeles Police Department, Charlie Beck has been one of the more prolific letter-writing chiefs. The Times has published five of his often lengthy letters since he became chief in 2009, and — as one would expect — nearly all of Beck's missives take issue with articles in the paper, especially editorials.

But summing up Beck's letters as opposed to The Times would be an oversimplification (and, actually, wrong; memorably, the chief wrote to us some years ago to admit that "The Times was right and the Los Angeles Police Department was wrong").

With Beck seeking a second five-year term as head of the LAPD, I delved into our archive and dug up his letters from the last several years. Re-reading them all gives the impression that the chief's overarching goal hasn't been to antagonize the paper but to use disagreements as a way to peel back the curtain and explain his department to a readership largely unfamiliar with the complicated task of policing a metropolis as expansive and diverse as Los Angeles. His letters haven't accused The Times of journalistic malpractice or blatantly or recklessly misrepresenting his department; rather, they express respectful and restrained disagreement, and go on to put his department in the best possible light.

Whether they're persuasive, of course, is up to readers.

Here are Beck's letters, starting with the most recent.

In this missive from June 8, 2013, Beck took issue with a Times editorial on a U.S. Supreme Court decision further empowering police to collect DNA:

The U.S. Supreme Court got it absolutely right in finding that it is constitutional for DNA to be collected at the time of arrest and checked against a national database of unsolved cases. The Times' claim that doing so violates an arrestee's 4th Amendment rights is off base.

The 4th Amendment prohibits only unreasonable searches, and case law through the years has found it reasonable for law enforcement to collect a number of identifying traits at the time of arrest. For example, photographs and fingerprints taken shortly after a person is arrested are checked against large databases. DNA is no different, and its collection is not a violation of the 4th Amendment.

The beliefs that DNA collection is inherently more intrusive and that it creates vast reservoirs of personal information are uninformed. We quickly swab cheeks to collect DNA samples, a much faster and easier process than the old-fashioned routine of having a set of fingerprints rolled. And besides, if intrusiveness were truly the issue, we could switch to the unintrusive collection of touch DNA. Plus, nothing in the DNA markers we use in our national database contains anything that could identify physical characteristics; this genetic material is called "junk DNA" precisely for this reason.

The Supreme Court's decision combines good law with good science, and it will make all of us safer in its application.

On Jan. 19, 2013, Beck discussed department numbers:

Jim Newton's column regarding the significance of the Los Angeles Police Department achieving 10,000 officers misses the mark. When the mayor started his first term in 2005, there were 9,284 officers. Today there are 10,023.

Despite deep fiscal cuts to the LAPD, the mayor and the City Council have worked with the department in allowing it to find the least harmful ways to absorb these cuts. Instead of simply cutting the number of officers, the city's leaders held firm, and the result is the 10th straight year of crime reduction.

Newton also questions the functional transfer of officers from the Department of General Services to the LAPD, saying these officers are simply changing uniforms. These transferred officers will now go about their duties with a broader focus than simply the safety of public buildings. I will be able to better integrate these officers' duties with improving public safety for all of Los Angeles.

I am often quoted as saying, "Cops count." Even more important is the focus and mission of those cops.

On Nov. 4, 2012, The Times published a mea culpa from Beck:

I have written a number of letters to this paper, primarily to clarify what I think are important issues or to take The Times to task when I believe inaccuracies have been reported. This letter is different; it is an admission that The Times was right and the Los Angeles Police Department was wrong.

The article on an officer-involved shooting in the Newton area questioned why key information that the individual we shot was handcuffed was omitted from our original news release. Our explanation that we have to balance the needs of the investigation with the public's right to know was accurate as far as it goes, but in this particular case, we erred by not originally putting out the information that the suspect was handcuffed. We weren't trying to hide the facts; instead, we were overzealous in protecting the purity of the investigation. We went too far, and I thank The Times for pointing this out.

This officer-involved shooting will be thoroughly investigated, and if necessary corrective measures will be imposed. The LAPD prides itself on having the most exhaustive and transparent use-of-force investigations in the nation, and it is my intention to make that part of my legacy to this department.

Beck’s letter from June 4, 2012, weighed in on probation:

I disagree with The Times' criticism of the Los Angeles Police Department's "compliance checks" of post-release supervised persons (PSPs).

The L.A. County Probation Department has not been allocated sufficient resources to supervise the burgeoning PSP population and must work in partnership with local law enforcement in monitoring these individuals. Some 35% of these people released in the county claim an address in the city of Los Angeles. To state the LAPD has "no formal role in compliance checks" misunderstands the plan crafted by the county's criminal justice system for dealing with these individuals.

The LAPD fully supports programs aimed at increasing the odds of success for ex-offenders who strive to turn their lives around. However, I have dedicated precious police resources without the necessary funding to assist with the monitoring efforts, recognizing the importance of identifying those who will not successfully reintegrate into society.

We continue to adjust our protocols to ensure the best use of our resources while working with the Probation Department and service providers to ensure success. The LAPD will continue to conduct compliance checks on PSPs, including those in treatment facilities, as part of our efforts to ensure public safety.

On April 10, 2014, Beck lamented a pricey payout to a man shot by LAPD officers:

The Times agrees with a civil jury's decision that two Los Angeles police officers wrongly shot a fleeing gang member, and it endorsed the L.A. city attorney's decision to pay the man $4.5 million to settle his claim. The Times praises both the verdict and the settlement as deterrents to police misconduct.

Unfortunately, this was a case in which the trial judge exercised his discretion to deny the jurors key facts about the plaintiff, his conduct and his subsequent statements while in custody. For that reason alone, the Los Angeles Police Department believes the city attorney owes our officers and the taxpayers an appeal of this wrongful verdict, rather than capitulation in the form of an excessive and unnecessary settlement. The Times, however, had ready access to all the facts, which makes its conclusions all the more perplexing.

Nowhere in the editorial, for example, did The Times mention that our department, which now conducts the nation's most thorough investigations of officer-involved shootings, found that the two officers behaved correctly — a conclusion subsequently supported by both the department's inspector general and the city's civilian Police Commission.

Here are the facts: The officers were summoned to the scene of a drive-by shooting. Once there, they saw and pursued the vehicle from which the shots were fired. When the vehicle stopped, they saw the occupants — all of whom they reasonably believed were armed — fleeing. As the officers began to pursue the driver on foot, they heard gunshots behind them, which heightened their vigilance. After a chase on foot, the driver turned to face them and the officers — believing he had a gun — made the split-second decision to fire in self-defense. Should they have waited until they were shot or shot at before firing? Should they have allowed him to flee farther, perhaps taking hostages along the way or working himself into a place where the officers could not return fire for fear of hitting innocent bystanders?

These officers behaved courageously and professionally to protect the community from a dangerous individual who, minutes before, had attempted to commit a murder. While it is true that no gun was found at the scene of his capture, one of the facts the jury was denied — though The Times was not — was that a fellow inmate allegedly heard him boast that he had successfully tossed away his weapon as he fled. One of the other suspects stated the plaintiff was armed when he left the car.

Instead of paying off this individual, the city should appeal the judge's ruling that prevented the jury from receiving all the facts. Our officers do not require deterrents to unprofessional conduct; respect for individual rights is integral to the concept of constitutional policing that now governs our department's daily life.

Follow Paul Thornton's Twitter feed @PaulMThornton

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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