Opinion: Who’s in charge of the LAPD?


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My column on Monday looking at a proposed change in the way the Los Angeles Police Department handles cars it seizes from unlicensed drivers drew the predictable response: Scores of readers wrote to complain that this is just another misguided attempt to make life easier for illegal immigrants, while a smaller number wrote to praise the idea as a moderate way to handle an overbearing and unjust system that deprives those immigrants and others of their vehicles for relatively minor traffic violations.

First, I should note that my larger point was not the policy itself but rather the question of what it says about who makes policy for the LAPD. It’s my view that these proposed changes represent a change in policy and that the Police Commission, not Chief Charlie Beck, should therefore make them. That said, the proposal that the chief has advanced is one I agree with, despite the objections of some readers.


Take ‘divewizard,’ who wrote: ‘Anyone driving without a license should be arrested and the car impounded.’ That’s true, but it avoids the question. The real question is this: Should everyone who drives without a license lose their car for 30 days, or should there be different standards depending on the offense? If the unlicensed driver also is uninsured or has been in an accident or is charged with a serious offense (driving drunk, for instance), that driver would continue to lose the car for 30 days under the chief’s proposal. But if the driver carried insurance (yes, it’s possible to get insurance without a California license) and was merely pulled over for speeding, shouldn’t that be treated differently? Under Beck’s suggestion, such drivers would have their car impounded but could pick it up the following day if they arrived with a licensed driver.

Similarly, ‘mypapa’ argues that Beck’s job is to enforce the law, and that because it’s illegal to drive without a license, Beck should make sure his officers enforce the law. Simple, indeed, but Beck’s broader responsibility is to protect public safety. The effect of seizing cars for 30 days for even trivial offenses is that it encourages those without licenses to drive inexpensive cars and discourages them from registering them or obtaining insurance, because they will simply walk away if the car is seized and they can’t afford to get it back. Los Angeles would be safer if more cars were registered, insured and well maintained. And since Beck’s job is to look after that safety, I think he’s right to pursue this policy. I still think the commission should have the last word, though, and I respectfully disagree with Beck on that issue.

Finally, to the reader who argued that I was incorrect that the council can’t override the chief, it’s the reader who’s incorrect. The council has the power to take over any action by a commission and veto it if 10 council members support that veto -- that’s one reason supporters of this policy prefer not to have the commission act. The chief, on the other hand, does not report to the council, and it has no power to review his changes in LAPD procedure.


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--Jim Newton