Beck marks a year as L.A.’s top cop


When Charlie Beck was appointed chief of the Los Angeles Police Department a year ago, there were reasons to think he was walking into a mess.

The city’s financial crisis had gouged the LAPD’s budget and ended a hiring spree. Crime rates, which had fallen to historic lows, seemed to have nowhere to go but up. And it didn’t help that Beck was trying to fill the void left by his predecessor, William J. Bratton — the brash, high-wattage reformer who was seen by many as the department’s savior.

So something akin to a collective sigh of relief went out last week as Beck closed out his first year as chief having averted the doomsday scenarios. More than that, he has emerged as a deft manager who oversaw another improbable drop in crime and kept morale up among officers during difficult times.


“When you look at the cuts this department has faced, he’s done an impressive job,” said Paul M. Weber, president of the Police Protective League, the union that represents LAPD officers. “He’s somehow been able to keep crime down and the rank-and-file motivated. I think most people assumed that at some point we would have seen something give.”

More than anything, Beck’s first year was shaped by the city’s financial woes. Spared somewhat compared to other city agencies, the department nonetheless has suffered under a hiring freeze and furloughs that have thinned its civilian administrative staff. The number of police officers on the force stagnated as well, as the City Council downscaled Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s ambitious plan to add 1,000 cops. Perhaps most damaging was the elimination from the budget of roughly $100 million typically set aside to pay detectives and officers for the overtime they routinely work. Without that cash, Beck has been sending several hundred officers home on forced vacations each month to burn overtime hours.

The effect for Beck has been twofold: He has had to preside over what is essentially a morale-busting pay cut while making do with fewer cops on the street.

“He’s juggling limited resources,” said City Councilman Greig Smith, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee. “There are many things near the breaking point, but he’s managed to keep them from breaking.”

A 33-year department veteran who has two children on the force and a former deputy chief for a father, Beck has leveraged his LAPD roots in maintaining the support of the nearly 10,000 officers under him. He is a frequent presence at roll-call meetings and works a patrol shift once a month — gestures that resonate with the cops.

“There is nobody who can look at me and tell me that I don’t understand what they’re going through,” Beck said in an interview.


But being so deeply ingrained in the department he now leads has come at a cost, Beck said.

He recalled the knot in his stomach while he waited to hear whether it was his son who had confronted and killed a suspect wielding an assault rifle. (It wasn’t.) And, although no officer has been killed in action this year, he’s had to preside over the funerals of several officers with whom he had personal relationships. Discipline cases that land on his desk often involve officers he knows.

“The hardest thing for me has been the emotional toll of being at the end of the funnel of this thing. There is nothing to prepare you for having every tragedy be your tragedy,” he said. “And I’ve had to fire people that I know. This is just the way it is. It’s tough.”

The drop in crime has been substantial. At the end of last week, serious violent and property crimes were down 7% compared to the same period last year, according to department figures. The homicide rate had dropped 10%, raising the prospect the city could end the year with fewer than 300 killings — a dramatic decline from the early 1990s, when the rate was roughly four times higher.

Beck attributed the falling crime rates in large part to the department’s ongoing efforts to stem gang violence, which has fallen about 11.5% this year. Beck has overcome widespread skepticism inside the department toward a city program that trains former gang members to intervene after gang shootings. The cooperation between his officers and the intervention workers, Beck said, has been effective in reducing the retaliatory violence that often follows a gang shooting.

“We’ve been able to reduce it, but it is still far too common an occurrence. It happened last night, and it will happen again tonight,” Beck said of gang-related violence. “We still have large parts of the city where conflict between young men is resolved by gunfire, and that’s unacceptable. That is, to me, the huge goal: to be able to really affect that.”


Perhaps unexpectedly, the city’s fiscal mess has provided Beck an opportunity to step outside Bratton’s sizable shadow. In his many public and private meetings with City Council members and police union officials to hash out the department’s funding, Beck has earned praise and respect from both camps for what many have said is his collaborative, non-confrontational attitude and deep understanding of the issues.

“Bratton would have stood outside City Hall in his sweat suit and said ‘screw you’ and challenged us to a fistfight,” said Smith, making an exaggerated reference to criticisms Bratton once leveled at the council when a reporter caught up with him after a workout. “You got the sense with Bratton that it was always about him. It’s not like that with Charlie.”

In some important ways, Beck remains untested. He has not faced a major incident involving his officers along the lines of the May Day melee that Bratton had to confront or the Rodney King beating under Daryl Gates. He did face some heat from residents in the heavily immigrant Westlake neighborhood after an officer fatally shot a knife-wielding day laborer on a major thoroughfare. Tensions lessened after a few days, however.

Beck said he felt there was still considerable work to be done on what he sees as one of his overarching goals: to ingrain the reforms that Bratton introduced into the mind-set of rank-and-file officers.

“When I was chosen as chief, this city was obsessed with the mayor’s decision. Obsessed. I saw that as a desperate cry from people who were saying, ‘We don’t have faith in the organization,’ and so it became too important to them that they have faith in whoever was selected as chief,” Beck said. “But the faith has to be in the organization. I don’t plan on letting this city down, but let’s say that I did. That should not affect people’s opinion of the entire organization....The organization has to be bigger than any one person.”