Hearings begin this week on whether Charlie Beck should be reappointed as Los Angeles police chief for a second five-year term. The public will have an opportunity during community meetings over the next month to ask questions and raise concerns about his performance, or to voice support for his leadership. The civilian Police Commission has the option of continuing or ending his term; if it opts for the latter, it must make that decision by Aug. 20.
Beck is seeking reappointment at a time when the Los Angeles Police Department is free of major controversy and scandal. When he became chief, the LAPD was still under a consent decree the city had agreed to to avoid a lawsuit that would have dredged up the department's sometimes sordid record of brutality and racism. Chief William J. Bratton embraced the requirements of that decree, and when Beck took over, he steered the department through the final reforms needed to end federal oversight. Crime has continued to decline under his leadership, with gang crime reduced by half. Community relations appear strong — the seething antipathy toward the department that was a fact of life just a decade or two ago no longer dominates the city's concerns. To Beck's credit, the LAPD has managed this despite budget constraints, including a cost-cutting policy that keeps some 400 officers home each day rather than pay them overtime.
Given all that, Beck would seem to be a shoo-in for reappointment. It would, however, be wrong for the commissioners to skip through this process. This is an opportunity for the commission to take stock of its chief and imagine the future of the department. It should start by looking at the numbers.
Crime. Last year marked the 11th in a row that crime decreased in the city. Crime has declined in good economic times and bad, and those who deny the role of police in this revolutionary trend are arguing against facts. Los Angeles added officers in those years, and tailored policing strategies to address crime. The result: The number of serious and violent crimes in 2008, the year before Beck took office, was 127,374. The number last year was 100,521. That means that 27,000 Angelenos were spared a misery last year. No one should be cavalier about how much that affects the life of a city.
Yes, it's true that other forces influence crime, and yes, crime was declining before Beck's tenure, but the number of violent crimes and major property crimes has continued to drop each year. There are some on the City Council and elsewhere who continue to question whether the police played a significant role in those numbers, and thus whether the city could allow the department to shrink. They're wrong. Some cities — Chicago, for instance — have seen a resurgence in violence of late, while smart policing has made Los Angeles safer. Indeed, the LAPD's achievements in this area are all the more noteworthy given the overtime cuts. Beck deserves credit for balancing the department's budget without sacrificing safety.
Complaints. The number of complaints filed against LAPD officers decreased in each of the last six years; there were 40% fewer complaints in 2013 than in 2008.That is clearly heartening, but it should not be the basis for complacency. The commission should insist that Beck continue to demand thorough investigations of all alleged misconduct — the department fielded a total of 3,543 complaints last year — and ensure that progress will not lead to a lessening of effort.
Discipline. The chief's record on discipline will be under consideration amid concerns from some commissioners that he has been uneven or too lenient in meting out punishments. In one instance, Beck overruled a disciplinary panel's recommendation to fire an officer caught lying to investigators, stoking concerns of favoritism, as the officer was the nephew of a former deputy chief. Beck was also questioned after he returned to duty eight officers who violated policy by mistakenly and carelessly firing more than 100 rounds at two women delivering newspapers during the Christopher Dorner manhunt last year. To some, the chief's decision suggested he was not sufficiently concerned about excessive force, a charge he denied. Beck must address potential shortcomings in training or tactical procedures, as well as the appearance of inconsistent discipline.
Arrests. The LAPD is arresting far fewer people annually than it was before Beck became chief, dropping from 168,418 in 2008 to 141,174 last year. That may mean nothing: As crime declines, there may be fewer criminals to arrest, or it may suggest that the department is targeting its efforts more effectively rather than simply rounding people up. But arrests also are an indicator of officer productivity. The commission should press the chief for his explanation of this trend.
Response time. The most frightening and immediate test of a police department's ability is measured in the moments after, say, an intruder enters the house and the occupant calls 911 for help. Every second counts. In 2008, the average response time was 6.2 minutes. In 2013, it was 5.9 minutes. That's not a sea change, but it's progress.
Those are the numbers, and they present a picture of Beck's first term. The commission must also consider the next five years. Policing, like the rest of society, is in a period of technological opportunity and complexity. Drones, security cameras and facial recognition software are some of today's points of conflict between public safety and personal privacy. Tomorrow's will only be more vexing.
Beck deserves credit for his record. The commission has an obligation to consider it, and both must think deeply about the challenges ahead.