Long Beach Police Chief Lawrence L. Binkley had just returned home from a Sunday morning run when he was told of the television videotape that thrust his department into the most unflattering of limelights.
NBC’s “Today” show broadcast portrayed one of his men as a foul-mouthed, hot-tempered officer who appeared to push a suspect’s head through a plate glass window--a decidedly unpolished image of a police force that Binkley had vowed to “polish” after his arrival from the Los Angeles Police Department nearly two years ago.
“It’s had a major influence on the community,” conceded Binkley, who nonetheless did not seem fazed by the furor surrounding the nationally broadcast tape. He simply got on the phone to make sure all the bases were covered: Had a sergeant gone to the scene? Was internal affairs notified? Was the paper work being completed?
Although the videotape has prompted renewed complaints from community groups that Long Beach police are often abusive, it has not prompted calls to get rid of the 48-year-old Binkley, who has gained popularity with an open-door policy and who retains solid support at City Hall, where he is viewed as bright, articulate and professional. “I think we have a lot of confidence in his efforts,” Councilman Warren Harwood said. “He’s impressed a lot of people.”
But Binkley, a former commander in the Los Angeles Police Department who helped oversee security for the 1984 Olympics, is not nearly so popular inside Police Department walls.
Tagged as an outsider from the beginning, he is accused of foisting an imperial LAPD command style on the smaller Long Beach department. His relations with the powerful local police union have been bitter and officers report widespread discontent within the 632-member force over cutbacks in overtime pay, assignments, understaffing and Binkley’s discipline policies.
While outsiders are pushing for stricter controls on the force, noted one city official, “the irony . . . is that he is perceived by police officers as too harsh a disciplinarian.”
Binkley’s police critics contend that he holds them to a puritanical standard, overly concerned with “sin” offenses. As an example, they recite the case of an officer who was fired because he allowed his wife to run a neighborhood card game in their back yard.
That punishment was recently deemed too severe by a Superior Court judge and the officer will return to the force after a six-month unpaid suspension.
Binkley said he has dismissed about 20 officers for offenses including drug use, gambling, statutory rape and brutality since coming to Long Beach in 1987.
Tradition of Conflict
When he took the job, Binkley said, he found a tradition of conflict between the union and police management, within management and with City Hall. The turmoil had diverted department attention from law enforcement matters, according to Binkley, who readily admits that the union fights, at least, have continued under his tenure.
Since he was named chief, Binkley has greatly increased officer training time, established minority advisory groups, created special crime-fighting units such as an anti-gang squad, computerized the department and spent many nights at community meetings.
Lean and hawkishly featured, Binkley is something of a physical fitness addict. He runs daily, is a licensed private pilot and also water skis, sails, lifts weights and scuba dives.
But while Binkley has won praise from leaders of the minority and gay communities for meeting with them, they contend that little has changed on the street.
“I think he means well, but I think some of the officers are not following his lead,” said Charles G. Townsend, vice chairman of the Public Safety Advisory Commission, which advises the City Council on public safety matters.
Binkley said he is pushing his department as fast as it will go.
“I think there’s a balance between revolutionary changes and evolutionary changes. You have an organization that’s had a lot of problems for a long time and (if) you come in and just change everything in 10 seconds, what you’ll have is a revolution,” he said.
“My perception is, I was pushing to the brink.”