A decade ago, Charlie Beck watched as William J. Bratton arrived in Los Angeles and began rebuilding a department deeply tarnished by the Rodney King beating, riots and corruption scandals. Bratton made many changes as chief, but Beck was particularly taken by his aggressive effort to rebuild the LAPD's broken relationship with the African American community, which over and over Bratton said was a cornerstone to his success.
Beck carried the lesson with him when he replaced Bratton three years ago as chief of the nation's second-largest police force. With nearly half of the city's population Hispanic and the federal government's aggressive efforts to identify and deport illegal immigrants sowing fear in immigrant communities, Beck believed that his success or failure as chief rested heavily on whether he could replicate Bratton's success — but this time with Latinos.
His actions have made him a lightning rod for criticism, even from some of his own police officers. But they have also established Beck as a forceful national voice for a more restrained approach to illegal immigration, a high-profile counterpoint to hard-liners like Sheriff Joseph Arpaio in Arizona's Maricopa County.
His first move made it easier for unlicensed drivers — a group dominated by illegal immigrants — to avoid having their cars impounded. He then spoke in favor of issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Last month, he took that stance a large step further, announcing that suspected illegal immigrants arrested for low-level crimes would no longer be turned over to federal authorities for deportation.
In an interview, Beck said he was driven to act on some level by his sense that he can and should help level the playing field for illegal immigrants, whom he said have suffered unfairly from crude federal immigration laws. But Beck said those personal views were not as important as his more practical belief that extending an olive branch to immigrants in Los Angeles was vital to the LAPD's crime-fighting efforts.
"It's not so much that I am a dove on immigration," he said. "It's that I'm a realist. I recognize that this is the population that I police. If I can take steps — legal steps — to make them a better population to police then I will…. I do have sympathy for their plight, but my actions are not based mainly on that. It makes absolute law enforcement sense. Any one of these things I've done is directly tied to public safety."
Beck's shift has won wide support at City Hall and among immigration advocates. But he has also endured loud criticism that he is going soft on criminals and is out of line by picking and choosing the people who should be subject to the nation's immigration laws.
Some of the harshest attacks came on the issue of relaxing car impound rules. The L.A. police union accused Beck of overstepping his legal authority and filed suit to block the plan.
Others warned that the chief would have "blood on his hands" because the rules would allow unlicensed drivers back on the roads more quickly, where they could cause accidents.
His other initiatives have received similar blowback: The chief is encouraging lawbreakers by easing pressure on illegal immigrants and needlessly politicizing the Police Department in the process.
Beck strongly denies any political motives. In fact, he says his position as chief gives him a certain cover to address these hot-button issues outside the political arena.
"I will never run for elected office — I have a unique opportunity to do things that are right. I don't have to base my decision on what job I want next, because I don't want any job next. And I have a boss, the mayor, who didn't tell me to do this but certainly is supportive," he said.
The LAPD has long been a leader in dealing with illegal immigrants. It was Chief Daryl Gates, whose tenure was marked by tense relations with minority communities, who took the first major step.
Many of Beck's ideas and decisions regarding the city's roughly 400,000 illegal immigrants are rooted in Special Order 40 — a landmark policy put in place more than three decades ago that forbids LAPD officers from stopping a person for the sole purpose of determining his or her immigration status. Officials at the time believed that the new rule was needed to reassure illegal immigrants that they could report crimes and provide information about suspects without fear of being questioned about their immigration status.
Beck is one of only a few officers still active who joined the department before Special Order 40 was implemented. He recalled being a rookie and seeing his training officer take Latinos into custody simply because he believed they might be in the country illegally and then hand them over to federal immigration officials.
"I had no idea who or what or why we were doing it," Beck said. "But in retrospect you realize just how much fear that would put in the community — just to be able to randomly pick someone up like that."
The immigrant landscape that Beck oversees today has grown more complicated than the one of the 1970s and 1980s — and, in his eyes, has required him to take the steps beyond Special Order 40. Most notably, Beck must contend with Secure Communities, a controversial program through which local law enforcement agencies send the fingerprints of everyone arrested to federal immigration officials. In turn, federal officials use the prints to identify suspected illegal immigrants and frequently request police departments to keep them locked up for up to 48 hours until immigration officials can take custody of them and begin deportation proceedings.
The program, Beck said, and the federal government's failure to distinguish between serious, violent criminals and those who commit petty crimes, has given rise to widespread fear among immigrants of any encounter with police. He said his recent announcement that the LAPD would no longer honor these so-called detainer requests from federal officials in cases in which the suspect was arrested for a minor crime and has no violent criminal past was meant as a counterweight. He hopes that the move will persuade immigrants that the LAPD is not an arm of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
His first major foray into the immigration debate occurred in March 2011 when he announced that unlicensed drivers stopped at sobriety checkpoints would be allowed to call someone with a license to drive their vehicle away to avoid having it impounded. At the time, he said, the move was meant to assist illegal immigrants, who cannot receive driver's licenses in most states.
Near the end of the year, he broadened the impound rules to apply to regular traffic stops. And then, months later, he announced his support for issuing licenses to illegal immigrants in California. More recently, new battle lines were drawn around the Trust Act, a far-reaching piece of legislation approved by state lawmakers that forbids police departments from honoring detainer requests in many types of crimes. When the law, which Beck felt went too far, was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the chief took advantage of the vacuum to announce his more moderate version of the plan for the LAPD.
It's too early to tell what effect his immigration policies, if any, will have on L.A.'s crime rate, which has been in decline for more than a decade. But Beck sees the changes as part of his legacy as chief.
"At least once in our history, we tore a community apart here and I never want to do that again," Beck said, referring to the 1992 riots that followed the LAPD beating of King. "It has always been my belief that we can be more effective than we are at building community. There may be other things I'll do that I think will help build that community and keep people safer."