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Behind closed doors, police chief pick was no shoo-in Mayor’s own staff in the dark till the last minute

When the Los Angeles Police Commission last week gave Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa the names of the finalists for the LAPD chief’s job, it was hardly a foregone conclusion that Deputy Chief Charlie Beck would be the eventual winner.

In fact, among the three finalists, the commission ranked Beck last.

Though many had anointed Beck early on as the favorite to win the job, the outcome behind closed doors, where decisions were actually made, could easily have been different. Beck had to overcome a surging dark horse candidate and a highly regarded department veteran, according to sources close to the selection who asked that their names not be used because the process was confidential.

Beck’s selection was complicated by what several sources described as the quiet but persistent lobbying for him by outgoing Chief William J. Bratton. From the outset of the process, it was assumed by nearly all involved that support from Bratton -- who is widely credited with transforming the LAPD and pushing down crime during his seven years as chief -- would prove to be a tremendous advantage for Beck over the others. That did not turn out to be the case.

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With commission members peeved at Bratton’s involvement and the mayor increasingly concerned that he not be perceived as unduly persuaded by Bratton, the departing chief’s support surprisingly became something of a liability.

“This was a very, very tricky process. Everything I thought was going to happen got turned on its head,” said someone closely involved in the selection procedure. “I was certain Bratton’s endorsement would be crucial. But he went too far. He became an albatross.”

In an interview Tuesday, Bratton disputed the contention that he was overly involved.

Three months ago, it appeared nothing could stop Beck’s ascent.

On the day three months ago that he announced his plans to resign as chief, Bratton called a close advisor to say he would be leaving at the end of October. “I said to him, ‘Both of us know there is only one person right for the job,’ ” the advisor recounted, referring to Beck.

That kicked off a well-orchestrated, behind-the-scenes campaign aimed at ensuring Beck made it onto the Commission’s list of finalists and was seen by Villaraigosa as the best person to continue with the reforms and progress made under Bratton. As other contenders either tried to go about the delicate process alone or did nothing to advance their chances, several Beck supporters inside and outside the department lobbied influential people close to the mayor.

As the commission launched its search for applicants, Bratton publicly and repeatedly voiced his opinion that his successor should come from within the department. Those comments, several sources said, while having no direct impact on Beck’s chances, irked commissioners, who felt they would dissuade qualified candidates from elsewhere from applying.

The popular impression that Beck -- known for balancing a tough stance on crime with the need to build ties with communities -- had an inside track held firm even after the commission, which oversees the department and was responsible for selecting the finalists, chose Beck, Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell and Deputy Chief Michel Moore. McDonnell, the department’s second in command, was seen as a strong contender but someone who would inevitably fade in the face of all the momentum behind Beck. Moore, the commander of the department’s San Fernando Valley forces, was considered a surprise finalist and too much of an unknown to have a serious chance.

In reality, Beck was far from the runaway favorite. The commission placed him behind McDonnell and Moore, who topped their list. Moore made a deep impression on many commissioners with his ideas on ways to reorganize the department and make badly needed cost-saving moves. Described as “passionate” and “wildly smart” by various sources, he came across as more independent from Bratton than the others. Villaraigosa, too, was bowled over by Moore when he interviewed him Friday, sources said. He was also mindful of his commission’s decision to rank Moore first. Commissioners had urged the mayor not to overlook their top choice, sources said.

By Saturday, word had spread throughout the LAPD and City Hall circles that Moore had burst into contention and that the race was now either his to lose or a toss-up between him and Beck. Villaraigosa made scores of calls to people to seek input. Several were surprised to hear him pepper them with questions about Moore. Business and political figures from the Valley weighed in on Moore’s behalf.

The mayor was torn. On the one hand, Beck represented the best of what Bratton had done during his tenure and, at first blush, gave Villaraigosa the greatest chance to continue to capitalize on the falling crime rates and reforms started by the former chief. Moore, on the other hand, came across as an intense, driven man who could shake things up and, if all went well, make the mayor look like a sage.

“At different times, I thought, ‘He could pick Moore.’ Then there was another time I thought, ‘You know what, he could pick McDonnell. That definitely could be who he picks.’ Then I thought that he surely could pick Charlie,” said Jeff Carr, the mayor’s newly appointed chief of staff.

Villaraigosa went so far as to call former Chief Daryl Gates and Rick Caruso, the developer and former Police Commission president who toyed with running against Villaraigosa in the last mayor’s race. Caruso said it was a surprise when the mayor called, since he had accused Villaraigosa of trying to profit politically from Bratton’s successful efforts to reduce crime.

“My sense was that he was still taking in information,” Caruso said Tuesday. “I thought he was asking all the right questions and was being very deliberative and careful.”

The mayor’s schedule intensified over the weekend. On Saturday, a day after wrapping up his first set of interviews with the finalists, he stacked up meetings with members of the commission, then with a panel of advisors and finally with four council members.

The following day, before calling the candidates back for a second round of interviews, Villaraigosa dropped by services at several churches. He sought advice from clergy and, in at least one instance, asked for their prayers. At the end of the day, he released a statement saying he would name his choice Tuesday.

Throughout, Villaraigosa kept his own senior staff in the dark as to which way he was leaning, even as late as Monday afternoon, when he made a furious round of last-minute calls to leaders across the city. Up until Monday night, aides were drafting three speeches, one for each finalist, not knowing which Villaraigosa would name the next morning.

About 6:30 p.m., Villaraigosa told Carr and other senior staff members camped out at Getty House, the mayor’s official residence, to go back to City Hall and wait for his call, Carr said.

Unbeknown to any of them, the mayor had called Beck from his upstairs bedroom and told him he was his choice. The mayor summoned Beck, sneaking him inside through a back door in case anyone from the news media was camped out on the front sidewalk. Villaraigosa then invited his staff back to the house about 9 p.m.

“The mayor met us at the door and said, ‘Come on in. You ought to come into the kitchen and meet the new chief,” Carr said.

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

phil.willon@latimes.com


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