When Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck retires in June, he’ll leave to his successor the best department in the city’s history — one that’s no longer a hated, pugnacious symbol of repression or the kind of instigator of class and race volatility that ignited two of the bloodiest riots in American history.
The principal reason for the LAPD’s old notoriety was myopic, insular leadership — sometimes megalomaniacal, sometimes self-serving, and often deadly racist. The principal reason for its current achievements is leadership again, but of an entirely different kind. Now, as the Los Angeles Police Commission and Mayor Eric Garcetti select a new chief, they must find a candidate who checks a lot of challenging boxes. The best and worst in the department’s modern history provide a template — a set of qualities to shun and characteristics to seek.
The LAPD chiefs from the 1950s through the 1990s weren’t all that different from other big city chiefs of the era, just worse examples of the type. Mostly white men, they tended to be unable to conceive of anything beyond the big stick to reduce crime. They either wouldn’t, or didn’t know how to, accommodate the dramatic changes in race and culture taking place in their city.
William H. Parker, chief from 1950-66, was at first an exemplary chief for his time and place, but it didn’t last. He was a military man. When he took over, the force was mired in on-the-take corruption. He made any violation a career-ending sin, and honesty an essential virtue in new recruits, steps New York and Chicago didn’t take until decades later.
Daryl Gates (1978-92) had just about every red-flag quality the city should avoid in a new chief: intransigence, narrow-mindedness, arrogance.
But by the 1960s, Parker’s deficits were showing. He was autocratic; and worst of all, deeply racist. He denounced the “wild tribes from Mexico” pouring into his city and devised the intrusive, often brutal “occupying force” policing strategy in black L.A. that ignited the Watts riots in 1965 and haunts the department to this day.
Ed Davis, chief from 1969-78, shared Parker’s world view and many of his most egregious leadership qualities. The bullying way he dealt with conflict and adversity in the 1970s was wrong then and would be worse now. He utterly, uncompromisingly believed the LAPD should be accountable only to him. His go-to response to any perceived criticism was to declare war.
To take one example, when a TV reporter decided to investigate a raft of bad LAPD shootings, Davis ordered the reporter’s head shot placed on the targets at the Police Academy’s shooting range, and stickers with his last name pasted on patrol-car rear bumpers: “ [Wayne] Satz Sucks.”
As Davis’ immediate predecessor, Chief Tom Redden pointed out: “When Ed Davis fought with everybody, the cop on the street thought he could fight with anyone, too.” And that’s what L.A. cops did in the decades to come: They incited trouble.
Daryl Gates (1978-92) had just about every red-flag quality the city should avoid in a new chief: intransigence, narrow-mindedness, arrogance. He saw his troops as his only constituency and he defended and ultimately encouraged them no matter how outrageous their behavior. Gates’ LAPD was the culmination of the sins of Parker and Davis. He simply didn’t care that vast numbers of Angelenos hated the department and felt impotent to change it. Just as Parker’s force helped precipitate the Watts riots a generation earlier, Gates’ LAPD laid the foundations for 1992’s explosive insurrection.
Willie Williams left his post as Philadelphia Police Commissioner to succeed Gates. He had two qualities the riot-torn city was sure it needed: He was an outsider and an African American. Williams, however, proved that hiring a symbol is a bad idea. He arrived knowing no one and trusting no one, and he made no allies. Incurious and inept, he lacked the skill and the energy to connect with the department, let alone reform it. Unceremoniously dismissed after five years, Williams’ tenure was a lost opportunity.
Bernard Parks, an LAPD veteran, came next. He knew the city and was highly regarded in the black community, by downtown politicians and department insiders. But like his predecessors, he tried to run the LAPD as his own private fiefdom. He was dictatorial and headstrong; his harsh and indiscriminate discipline, and tight top-down management so alienated his troops they were in open revolt when Parks was forced out of the chief’s job.
Finally, in William J. Bratton (2002-09), L.A. chose a proven quantity. Bratton was an outsider and a reformer (Boston and New York) committed to rational, accountable, modern policing. He didn’t stick to an antiquated manual. He freed his field captains to tailor the organization of their divisions to different needs. Bratton added two must-have qualities to the chief checklist: He was flexible and innovative.
The current chief, Charlie Beck — native Angeleno, 40-year LAPD veteran — cemented the reforms Bratton began. His temperament is the right model for the next chief. He has internalized the way the city works and his interpersonal skills have allowed him to forge ties with the liberal police commission, the conservative police union and the city’s diverse communities. He won rank-and-file buy-in for body cameras and a new “de-escalated” shooting policy; he absorbed criticism without public rancor.
Los Angeles knows from experience how tenuous police-community goodwill can be in a city with deep racial and economic divides, competing stakeholders and a volatile crime rate. It’s next police chief must be strong but not authoritarian, confident but not arrogant, willing to reach out in all directions, committed to best practices and constant evolution.
History shows that Los Angeles pays if the wrong person runs the LAPD. The lesson for the commission and the mayor is simple: Don’t screw this up.
Joe Domanick is the West Coast bureau chief of TheCrimeReport.org. His latest book is “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing.”
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