Column: Chief Charlie Beck talks about perfecting the LAPD
That TV-friendly phrase “top cop”? It doesn’t begin to describe Charlie Beck’s job as the chief of the LAPD. Just how much the job entails became clear during the application process for his second five-year term. He’s a lawman, yes, but also a diplomat, civic preacher, technologist, budgeter, psychologist, disciplinarian, politician — you get the idea. A department that’s spent 20 years trying to remake itself still must prove itself on the streets every day, and headlines from Ferguson, Mo., are a reminder to Beck and the whole city of how bad it once was here in Los Angeles.
You won’t comment specifically on the killing of Michael Brown in Missouri, but what about the larger questions it raises?
I don’t know what kind of relationship the police there have with their community. [From] what the news media say about the [demographic] makeup of the police department, I can tell you that’s not a good recipe for community policing or community involvement. These are not revelations, that a police department should reflect its community. We’ve been struggling to do that for decades. It’s not a revelation that you need strong community ties that you build in times of peace so you don’t have to build them in times of catastrophe. If those are lessons that some places still need to learn, that’s one thing. But to say that the entire profession doesn’t understand those things, that’s not true.
What about the Washington Post opinion piece by LAPD officer Sunil Dutta? For many the takeaway was “do what the officer tells you to” — or else.
It’s a big organization and there’s lots of opinions in a big organization. He has an opinion that doesn’t reflect mine or the organization’s. There’s a Chris Rock comedy piece on exactly this. [Dutta’s piece] was very simplistic. It doesn’t take into account all the realities of the interactions between human beings. I will say this: It didn’t help. There becomes so much intense interest during these times that I think we sometimes lose focus on the bigger picture.
There’s community anger about the fatal shooting of a mentally ill South L.A. man, Ezell Ford. Incidents like these make people afraid that L.A. could tip over into violence again.
Of course we’re afraid. I’m worried too. They don’t pay me not to worry! We’ve built relationships and put money in the bank of trust, and we’re more open and transparent than we’ve ever been, and we try to be as open and transparent as we can within the parameters of public safety and the law. If you do those things, you should be able to get through an Ezell Ford.
You were just reappointed to another five-year term. Do you think differently about the department and the job after that?
It was a much more difficult process than I anticipated, to be very frank, and I learned a lot more than I thought I would. I think I was more content with where the Police Department was prior to the process than I am right now. I got to see the department through other people’s eyes and in a different light. Because of that, I think I’ll be a little bit different — not entirely different, but a little bit — than I was the first term. Painful as that was, and as much as I didn’t enjoy the social media pieces and the inaccuracies and things said for dramatic effect, I think there was value to it.
When you say you need to do better, what do you have in mind?
I absolutely have to be better at working with the Police Commission. It’s a different Police Commission, and it deserves a chief who works with it in a way that accommodates them. I have to be better at working with my unions. I’ve had a decent relationship with them, but they’re in a very transitional state, they have some new members and are going to have elections and probably get new members on their board. The chief needs to work on the some of the bigger issues in L.A. and the country as a whole, like the ones I talked about: immigration, gun violence, gang violence. I come from a city that has a lot of experience with them.
It came out that you approved the LAPD buying a horse from your daughter for mounted patrol duties. You first said you didn’t handle it. The commission approved it without knowing that it was your daughter’s horse. What would a do-over look like?
I would make sure the Police Commission and I were on the same page. I take full responsibility for that. My daughter did nothing wrong, the city benefited from the transaction, it was more than a fair price. The do-over is that we make sure the commission was more in tune with what I was doing.
In Ferguson, Michael Brown was stopped by police for jaywalking, a minor violation that might be prosecuted under the “broken windows” policing practice. Is there a contradiction between “broken windows,” which some people might regard as harassment, and “community policing”?
Everybody interprets “broken windows” and “community policing” in their own way. There are people who believe they contradict each other. I’m not one of those. I think they complement each other. But it doesn’t mean enforcing all minor crimes; it means enforcing the ones that are precursors to more serious crimes. It’s about working to eliminate an obvious prostitution stroll because it’s a magnet for violent crime and it leads to human trafficking and the degradation of women and the breakdown of families.
I want to make sure people understand this is a department that believes in community policing and building trust. Are we a perfect department? There’s no such thing. Do we strive to be that? I think we do.
One of the special task forces you created, the Animal Cruelty Task Force, was investigating the shootings of dogs in the Valley, and that led to the arrest of a man in that series of random killings.
The precursor crime was animal cruelty; that happens all the time. People are always after me to cut [the special task forces], and I say, no, no, this is really important. And that proved it. We might never have caught this guy had we not opened up that [animal cruelty] case. If that guy had rolled back out and shot a couple more totally innocent people, what’s the price of that? There’s no price.
Is a national database for violent police-civilian encounters a good idea?
We would have no problem doing that. Those are part of the statistics that I read weekly to the Police Commission. I say how many categorical uses of force we’ve had this year, how many officer-involved shootings, assaults on police officers… The real discussion: Why are some communities more susceptible to violence than others?
Violence between the police and public occurs [where] there’s also a huge amount of general violence. I’m not excusing police violence; I’m saying it’s more than that. You bring down general violence, you bring down violence between the police and the community too. A lot of that has to do with things that are far outside the control of the police and maybe outside the control of government, but I wish we had that discussion as vigorously as we do about violence toward and by the police.
The Defense Department provides police with military-grade equipment. In Ferguson, it seemed to heighten the tensions.
These things have an application but must be limited. You see what the LAPD does for crowd control — our primary line of crowd control is our bike officers. We may have the equipment, but we certainly don’t brandish it; we don’t show it when it’s not needed because it just escalates. You have to have strong rules. Nobody wants a police state, certainly not me, and nobody wants a militarized police department.
[Recently] a suspect was firing an assault weapon with dozens and dozens of rounds at his disposal, and he shot one of my SWAT officers. If we hadn’t had an armored vehicle and were able to approach him, we’d have had many more injured. But in a crowd-control situation, absolutely not.
In L.A., there was a City Hall protest against police use of drones.
People are very emotional about drones. I don’t want them for general surveillance. There are many, many positive uses for these things and many, many negative, destructive uses. Wouldn’t you want to put drones up over a large woodland to look for a lost hiker or child? Of course we would. Wouldn’t you want, rather than have a police officer look through a window on a barricaded suspect, have a drone look through? We have to have that discussion. I don’t want to lose community trust to get one more tool; I’m not going to lose community trust to use drones.
The chief’s job is big; you’re a public figure with an audience of millions.
That’s been one of the things about being chief that’s very different than I had thought. As you work your way through the ranks of the Police Department, most of that leadership you practice is internal. When you go to chief, the biggest step is to external leadership. They take different skills. I think I’m getting better at it — my stances on immigration and gun ownership and gang violence. It’s more than a nuts-and-bolts policing thing. It’s about policing through some of the most serious problems we have in our society.
This interview was edited and condensed.
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