This week, the Los Angeles Police Commission will convene hearings to consider whether LAPD Chief Charlie Beck — who is finishing his fifth year in office — deserves to serve for another five. Yet even after decades of debates over the proper relationship between a chief and the commission, there are no firm guidelines in place about how the decision should be made.
FOR THE RECORD:
Public hearings on Beck's reappointment begin Wednesday, not Tuesday.
The current system for naming, retaining and replacing chiefs grows out of the breakdown of civilian oversight of the department in the early 1990s. In those days, Chief Daryl F. Gates and Mayor Tom Bradley feuded nastily, and their mutual dislike was stoked by the controversy that engulfed Los Angeles after the release of a videotape showing LAPD officers beating Rodney G. King in 1991. By the time of the riots in 1992, the two had not spoken for more than a year.
The Christopher Commission, named for Los Angeles attorney (and future U.S. secretary of State) Warren Christopher, concluded that the chief was too unaccountable to the city's civilian Police Commission, which was supposed to set policy for the LAPD and to supervise its chief. Partly to blame, the Christopher Commission concluded, were civil service protections that in effect created a "chief for life." Instead, the commission recommended that chiefs be limited to 10 years in office, with a midpoint review. Voters approved that change as a charter amendment over Gates' furious objections — indeed, on the night that the riots broke out in 1992, Gates was attending a fundraiser to defeat the amendment.
At the same time that the Christopher Commission was trying to put limits on a chief's tenure, it also wisely suggested that it should be the norm for chiefs to serve the full 10 years. Its final report described the structure as a single term broken into "two five-year increments." And though the Police Commission was given broad authority to get rid of a chief who had lost its confidence, the midpoint review was intended as an opportunity for a course correction when something was going wrong, not as a routine opportunity to make a switch. That was meant to strike the balance between accountability and stability, both important for leading an organization as complex and powerful as the LAPD.
Since then, three chiefs have applied for renewal. Two, Willie L. Williams and Bernard C. Parks, were denied the additional five years; one, William J. Bratton, was given the extra time. Their experiences are instructive and should guide the commission.
By 1997, with Williams approaching the end of his first five years, there was a strong consensus among the city's political leadership that he had failed. Though he had helped patch up the LAPD's relations with parts of the city, notably among blacks, the department's performance measures were mixed and its leadership was demoralized. Most significant, Williams lost the commission's confidence when he lied about accepting free accommodations from a Las Vegas hotel.
Parks' case was more difficult. Under his leadership, crime declined significantly, and he repaired much of the damage from Williams' years. But Mayor James Hahn found Parks stubborn and unwilling to embrace the reforms demanded under a consent decree with the federal government. He was denied a second five years in 2002.
Bratton helped monitor that same decree and was tapped by Hahn to replace Parks. Under him, the city accelerated its efforts to bring down crime, which eventually reached lows that many observers had thought impossible. Intense and sometimes stunningly self-congratulatory, Bratton nevertheless implemented the consent decree reforms while simultaneously vastly improving public safety. He was given a second term almost by acclamation, though he left before completing it.
Which brings us to Beck. The history of this process suggests that his evaluation should blend hard measures and soft ones. As our Sunday editorial on this subject suggested, the LAPD on his watch has brought down crime and made Los Angeles safer. That is, of course, his main responsibility, and so he starts with a strong foundation. Moreover, the process itself is intended to include a presumption of renewal.
That presumption, however, is not absolute. The commission should listen to the public over the coming weeks and assess whether the LAPD is serving as it should, whether its officers are regarded as welcome protectors of communities or as the forbidding occupiers they once were. It also should assess its own relationship with Beck; do the commissioners trust his leadership? It should discuss with him his ideas for the future; do they conform to the goals of the commission itself? And to the degree that those goals diverge, is he willing to listen and consider alternatives?
When Ed Davis, an outspoken and brilliant Los Angeles police chief who held the office through most of the 1970s, was asked whether he would consider running for mayor, he famously retorted that he would never consider giving up so much power. Davis' quip may be apocryphal, but it persists in legend because it captures a truism of L.A. political history: Chiefs have great power.
That's why this reappointment process is so important. It is intended not only to review Beck's record but also to elicit his vision for the future and to ensure that he and those who come after him wield their power responsibly.