In 1992, I was a young Los Angeles Police Department sergeant assigned to the Internal Affairs Division and had just returned home after a long shift only to see on television the Florence and Normandie assaults, the beating of Reginald Denny and fires spreading all over the city. I was stunned at the absence of any response by my beloved LAPD. I quickly got into my personal car and drove westbound into a sunset that highlighted a city on fire and in crisis.
Reporting to the LAPD Command Post at 54th Street and Van Ness Avenue, I found myself among hundreds of fellow officers of all ranks, all of us waiting for orders. Police cars in long rows sat empty, waiting for a mission. Knowing that the city was burning from arson fires yet sitting idle left me feeling numb. On that first night, the department failed to adequately fulfill its role of protecting and serving.
Over the next six days, I saw terrible inhumanity committed against innocent people, and heroic actions by officers, firefighters and residents alike. As the arson fires burned out and the city began cleaning up the damage, I knew everything had changed. The 1992 civil unrest was a defining point in the history of the LAPD and, for me personally, a life-changing event. I knew in my heart then that we had to completely change the way we policed this city. I didn’t become a Los Angeles police officer to stand by and watch terrible events take place around me; I joined the LAPD to help people who were in need and to protect those who were unable to protect themselves.
In the years leading up to the civil unrest, Los Angeles was hard hit on many fronts. Budget cuts, racial tensions in demographically changing neighborhoods, the explosion of crack cocaine and other drugs, along with the emergence of violent street gangs had caused crime in the city to skyrocket. The LAPD responded to this crushing wave of crime by becoming an even more assertive police force with an us-versus-them bunker mentality. On the streets, LAPD officers perfected an aggressive, (we called it proactive) style of policing, which involved frequently stopping people on the theory that this would prevent possible crimes from occurring.
Relations with the communities we served, especially minority communities, became ever more strained. The style of policing that LAPD leaders demanded of officers was seen by many residents as evidence of a prejudiced police force, an occupying army that treated people, especially minorities, with contempt and prejudice. The use of tactics such as the chokehold, hogtying of combative suspects and making young men sit on the curb while officers searched (in police parlance “tossed”) their cars and pockets added further insult. The result was a city that was increasingly alienated from the police who were supposed to serve them. That alienation culminated in the worst civil unrest in Los Angeles history.
In the 20 years since, the LAPD has remade itself. In 1994, voters reformed the City Charter, ending the virtually permanent tenure of the police chief. A seven-year federal consent decree required more than 100 changes to the way the LAPD operated, and it kept the department under intense scrutiny. With the support of elected leaders, the size of the department grew to nearly 10,000 sworn officers. Today, our use-of-force investigations are the most thorough in the nation.
I am proud of the extraordinary and often difficult transformation the LAPD has undergone in the years since the uprising, and the fact that we have been able to apply the lessons learned to become a better police department and city.
The events of April 1992 taught us that no matter what we do, we cannot solve crime problems and improve living conditions in Los Angeles without the help, cooperation and trust of the community we serve. Over the years, we have developed strong working partnerships to help resolve conflicts peacefully. I’m proud the city introduced Gang Reduction Youth Development programs in an effort to work on reducing the root causes of gang membership and violence.
Today’s LAPD is more diverse and reflective of the communities that we serve. In 1992, 59% of the officers on the LAPD were white. Today, 36% of our officers are white. And there are many more female officers.
Working diligently with all our community partners, we have brought crime down to levels most Angelenos have not seen in their lifetimes. Now, murders occur at one-quarter the rate they did during those awful years, and we are working hard to continue lowering the crime rate.
As difficult as those days and the subsequent journey have been, the LAPD in 2012 is a respected, effective, community-oriented institution that police departments across the United States emulate. And we’re not finished. We are still working to improve partnerships between police and communities, and to continue building the kind of trust and support that will enable us to make Los Angeles the safest major city in the country. There are still communities and individuals who are wary of police, and it is our job to communicate better and mend those relationships.
My two children and my son-in-law are all LAPD officers. Like any parent, I want their future to be safe, secure and happy. But I also want to leave them with a legacy: I want them to belong to a Police Department that is a force for positive change, and one that brings communities together instead of tearing its city apart.
Charlie Beck is chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.