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Beck facing rare criticism

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck is under fire from his civilian bosses, who increasingly are troubled by his reluctance to punish officers they found had killed or wounded people unjustifiably.

“If this pattern continues, it could undermine the entire discipline system and undermine the authority of the commission,” said Robert Saltzman, a member of the Police Commission and associate dean at USC’s law school. “It runs the risk of sending the message to officers that there will be no consequences.”

The dispute marks a rare point of contention for Beck and the commission, a five-member panel that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department and has otherwise heaped praise on the chief for his performance.

Since Beck took over as chief in late 2009, the commission has ruled on about 90 incidents involving officers who fired weapons or used other deadly force. In almost all of them, Beck concluded the officers used force appropriately and urged the commission to clear them of wrongdoing. The board followed his guidance most of the time.

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But in four shootings -- in which three people were killed and three others wounded by police gunfire -- the commission went against the chief’s recommendations and ruled the officers’ use of lethal force was inappropriate.

In each of those cases, Beck either refused to impose any punishment on the officers or gave them only a written reprimand, The Times has found. In a fifth incident, Beck agreed that the officer had been wrong to fire his gun but nonetheless chose not to punish him.

The chief’s apparent unwillingness to suspend or demote officers, or to initiate the process to fire them, in these types of cases has worried a majority of the commission. Beck, they say, is ignoring their conclusions that the officers made serious, often deadly, mistakes. And they fear the lack of punishment may be sending a dangerous message to the LAPD’s rank-and-file officers that the consequences for a bad shooting are minimal.

“Sometimes the chief just needs to set a tone and, through his actions, send a message about what kind of conduct is acceptable,” said commission President Richard Drooyan, an attorney who served as a high-ranking official in the U.S. attorney’s office. Drooyan emphasized that he does not expect the chief to impose a punishment in every case, but said, “If we find there was a very serious transgression ... we’d expect there to be some consequences.”

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John Mack, the board’s vice president, shares the concerns of Drooyan and Saltzman. Alan Skobin, who soon will step down after several years on the board, has been a lone voice of opposition to the trio, saying he believes Beck is right to focus on retraining officers involved in questionable shootings instead of punishing them. The fifth commission member, Debra Wong Yang, said Beck’s record on deadly-force cases “raise questions in my mind,” but she wants to see if it continues before drawing conclusions.

Although the number of cases in question is small, the public’s perception of the LAPD is strongly affected by controversial police shootings and the department’s response to them. “The most important thing the department does,” Drooyan said, “is that it uses force.”

Beck defended his decisions, saying he imposes harsh punishments when they are appropriate but refuses to come down harshly on officers who, he believes, acted within the department’s policies and tried their best during stressful, dangerous encounters. “I see things from a different perspective than they do,” he said of the commissioners. “I have to be able to align my discipline with my review of the occurrence.”

The friction underscores an odd, and some say dysfunctional, division of power in Los Angeles. The city’s charter gives the commission the authority to decide whether a police officer’s use of deadly force was justified. But decisions on how to discipline officers reside with the police chief.

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In Los Angeles, the success or failure of past police chiefs to lead the large, often roiling Police Department has rested in large part on how they handled discipline.

The legacy of Daryl F. Gates, the influential, controversial leader from 1978 to 1992, was tarnished by his reputation for being too tolerant of crass, brutish behavior. By contrast, Bernard C. Parks relished his reputation as a disciplinarian but was ousted after a tumultuous term in which he lost the support of rank-and-file officers who viewed him as vindictive. When William J. Bratton succeeded Parks, he announced to officers that “the game of ‘Gotcha’ in this department is coming to an end” -- a line that won him considerable leeway from the rank and file.

In deadly-force cases, however, Bratton took a decidedly harder line than Beck. An internal LAPD report obtained by The Times tallied 14 shootings over a two-year period in which the commission ruled officers had violated the department’s policies on using force. In all but two of the shootings, Bratton suspended the officers or recommended they be fired. (In Los Angeles, a disciplinary hearing panel, not the chief, decides whether to fire a police officer.)

The current discord over the shooting cases has played out almost entirely during private meetings Beck and the commission have each week, but was on display briefly last month at a public commission meeting. A commission report questioned whether it had been appropriate for Beck to give reprimands twice to a detective who was involved in two similar deadly-force cases.

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In both shootings, which occurred about a year apart, the detective repeatedly fired a shotgun into cars carrying armed-robbery suspects. The commission found the officer had been justified firing the first few volleys, but that subsequent rounds had been excessive because the officers were no longer under threat.

Drooyan, Mack and Saltzman all registered their concern about Beck’s decision to let the detective off with the reprimands, saying they worried it was too lenient and could send the wrong message.

“Well, the chief is very aware of the message he needs to send to the department,” Beck shot back tersely. “This is the chief’s purview.”

The killing of Steven Washington, an unarmed man with a learning disability, brought the tension into perhaps its sharpest relief. In the 2010 shooting in Koreatown, two gang enforcement officers drove up slowly behind Washington, who was walking alone on a sidewalk just after midnight. The officers said later that they were investigating a suspicious noise, according to the department’s internal review of the incident.

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Allan Corrales, the officer riding in the passenger seat, told investigators he drew his weapon as they approached because Washington had moved a hand to his waistband as if reaching for a gun. As the patrol car pulled alongside Washington, Corrales said the 27-year-old turned suddenly with an object in his hand that Corrales thought was gun, pointed it at the officers and began to approach the car.

With Washington about 5 feet away, Corrales fired once through the car’s open window, striking Washington in the head. Corrales’ partner, who had jumped out of the car, fired but missed.

Washington had had nothing in his hand. A cellphone was found still clipped to his waistband.

When he reviewed the case last year, Beck faulted the officers for using poor tactics -- namely their failure to get out of their car and approach Washington on foot -- but concluded the decision to shoot Washington was reasonable because of his movements.

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The commission did not agree. Not only were the officers’ tactics flawed, but their claim that Washington appeared armed and had acted menacingly wasn’t believable, the commission concluded. “The available evidence,” the commission wrote in a report on the incident, “did not support [the officers’] account” and indicated Washington “did not engage in any conduct that posed a threat warranting the use of lethal force.” In a unanimous vote, the commission found the officers had violated the department’s use-of-force policy and that the shooting was not reasonable.

Beck, in turn, chose to give the officers retraining courses and “conditional reprimands,” according to records compiled by The Times. The reprimands essentially are warnings to the officers that they will receive serious punishments if they misuse force again.

Corrales and his partner did not respond to requests for comment. And members of the commission and Beck would not comment specifically on any of the cases in question because officer discipline is confidential under state law. But speaking generally about the chief’s record on deadly-force cases, Mack said, “The chief needs to be careful not to go overboard with this softer approach. If it’s carried to the extreme, then where is the accountability?”

Beck objected strongly to the notion he is letting his officers off easily.

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His decisions on whether to punish officers are guided, in large part, by his belief that there are two basic categories of officer misconduct, he said.

The first he refers to as “mistakes of the heart” and the other “mistakes of the mind.”

The chief said he has no tolerance for mistakes of the heart, which he described as acts committed out of malice or anger or some other emotion that the officer fails to control.

And, in fact, Beck did punish two officers involved in deadly-force cases that seem to fall into this category. In one, Beck suspended an officer 15 days for an off-duty road rage incident, in which the officer fired three times at another vehicle. In the other, Beck moved to have an officer fired after

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he was involved in an off-duty shooting in a bar parking lot. Both times Beck recommended to the commission that it find the officers acted inappropriately.

With mistakes of the mind, however, Beck’s approach is far different. To him these are mistakes made by officers, who, in the chief’s eyes, were trying their best in fluid, often perilous situations that demand split-second decisions.

“Those to me are more appropriately handled through retraining,” he said. “I believe they were trying to do the right thing, where they were in a difficult situation. They made a mistake, a tragic mistake. Tragic as it was, I tried to rehabilitate them.”

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joel.rubin@latimes.com


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