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Will Chief Charlie Beck do what needs to be done on police shootings?

Will Chief Charlie Beck do what needs to be done on police shootings?
President Obama shakes hands with Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck during a forum on criminal justice reform in Washington on Oct. 22. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

In many ways, the six-year tenure of Charlie Beck as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department has been a triumph. In October, Beck went to the White House with 130 other law enforcement leaders to meet with President Obama. The topic was the future of criminal justice, and it was Beck who was chosen to speak with the president on the group's behalf. Today, under the leadership of Beck and his mentor and predecessor, William J. Bratton, the LAPD has gone from appallingly bad to a national model of progressive police reform.

But here in Los Angeles, Beck isn't quite the hero he once was. Like many other big-city police chiefs — including Chicago Police Superintendent Gary McCarthy and Baltimore's Anthony W. Batts, who have been forced to resign — he is under attack for his handling of officer-involved shootings, especially the kind caught on videos that cause viewers to sit up and exclaim: "I can't believe they just shot that guy!"

If Beck stumbles while seeking the right balance, he risks the department's carefully rebuilt reputation, not to mention his job -- a tale well known in Los Angeles.


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On one recent occasion, the chief joined that chorus. The fatal shooting in May of Brandon Glenn, a white, unarmed, homeless man in Venice, was so incomprehensible that after viewing a security-camera video of the incident, Beck said that he'd not seen the "extraordinary circumstances" required to justify the shooting under LAPD use-of-force rules.

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FOR THE RECORD

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LAPD: In a Dec. 13 op-ed about Chief Charlie Beck's response to police shootings of unarmed Angelenos, the victim of a May 15 shooting in Venice was incorrectly identified as Brandon Glenn, a white man. He is Brendon Glenn, a black man.

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In response Craig Lally, the president of the LAPD's powerful union, the Police Protective League, denounced the chief's comments as "completely irresponsible."

That response illustrates the unease in L.A., and the nation, over the volatile issue of officer-involved shootings. It says a great deal about the challenges facing Beck as he tries to balance the demands of his often conflicting constituencies: politicians concerned about crime; minority communities outraged by police abuses, clamoring civil libertarians, a critical media; and the concerns of his own troops, worried that new shooting policies, closer scrutiny and tougher sanctions threaten their careers and their lives.

If Beck stumbles while seeking the right balance, he risks the department's carefully rebuilt reputation, not to mention his job — a tale well known in Los Angeles.

Daryl Gates, chief during the law-and-order 1980s and early '90s, had a constituency of one — his own troops. He never saw a brutal LAPD incident or outrageous police shooting that he wouldn't combatively defend. After the Rodney King beating and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, he lost all support other than that of his demoralized troops, which couldn't save his career or his department's reputation.

Willie Williams replaced Gates. A stranger from Philadelphia, he came to L.A. knowing no one and failed to develop any constituencies, including within the department. No one objected when the Los Angeles Police Commission dismissed him. Bernard Parks, an LAPD veteran, replaced Williams. He was arrogant and uncooperative with his civilian bosses and the department's rank and file. The union went to war against him, joining Mayor James Hahn and the commission in forcing his departure.

Bratton was next. The former New York City police commissioner courted two mayors, the media, the city's black leadership, the union and his division captains. And when controversy erupted, he was decisive. After LAPD officers went after peaceful protesters and reporters in MacArthur Park on May Day in 2007, for example, he swiftly answered the civic outrage, demoting and reassigning officers and ordering retraining.

Beck has mirrored his mentor in all but that last quality -- a clear and firm reply to a public call for change.

In 2015, police shootings in Los Angeles have almost doubled compared with last year, increasing from 23 to 45, as of mid-November. Nineteen people have died at the hands of the police, and two of those deaths, Glenn's and that of another unarmed homeless man, Charly Keunang, on skid row in March, have caused protests and controversy.

Except for his gut reaction to the Glenn shooting, Beck's overall responses have been uncharacteristically opaque. Like Bratton, he's made himself available for numerous community meetings, he's met with protesters and the media. But the outcome has been cautious: unswerving support for "full, fair" investigations of the controversial shootings.

Beck, and the status quo, came in for particular criticism in June, when, after 13 long months of "full, fair" inquiry, he finally ruled that an earlier questionable shooting was "in policy" — that of unarmed, mentally ill Ezell Ford, who was stopped by two officers and fatally shot during a struggle with them in August 2014.

The chief also implemented a body and dashboard camera policy that allows officers to see the camera videos before they make their use-of-force reports, but keeps the footage under wraps for almost everyone else. That policy pacified the Police Protective League, but it left civil libertarians and other critics angry and disillusioned.

Meanwhile, the Police Commission — which is statutorily charged with overseeing and setting department policy — decided to challenge Beck's decision on the Ford shooting, overruling his in-policy finding and introducing a new holistic criterion for judging the LAPD's use of force: The shooting was out of policy because Ford shouldn't have been stopped by the police in the first place.

Attempting once again to balance constituencies, Beck sent a pointed but restrained message of support to his troops in response to the commission's potentially game-changing policy shift. Months later, he announced a new LAPD award, on par with the department's highest honor, for heroism, the Preservation of Life Medal. It will go to officers who show restraint when they could legitimately use deadly force. The union's response came on its website: "A terrible idea that will put officers' lives in danger."

A case can be made that the chief's careful maneuvering — and close-to-the-vest responses — have been the best that can be expected given the conflicting desires of the union, the commission and the scrutiny of protesters and the media. He knows that trouble with the union is serious business. As a former street cop, he understands that policing in dog-eat-dog, violence-prone America is a dangerous and dirty business.

Now Los Angeles and the LAPD are heading into 2016 without a resolution for some of the hardest questions of 2015. What will the punishment be for the officer who shot Ford? Why are the Glenn and Keunang investigations dragging on?

Charlie Beck once told me that "a good police chief needs to be a chief for his time." Today that means facing a deep public desire for a revolution in the way we are all policed. The chief needs to seize the moment, and make it his own.

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Joe Domanick is the West Coast bureau chief of TheCrimeReport.org and associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. His latest book is "Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing."

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook

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