As the search begins for his replacement, some in Los Angeles are celebrating Charlie Beck’s departure. The call for the Los Angeles police chief’s removal had become a weekly refrain at the police commission meetings held every Tuesday morning. Despite his reformist reputation — he sought to protect immigrant communities and oversaw the completion of a consent decree imposed after the 2002 Rampart corruption scandal — the list of criticisms was long, particularly from people of color. So when Beck suddenly left his post on Jan. 19, more than 20 months before the end of his second five-year term, Melina Abdullah was one who didn’t see it as a retirement.
“We claim that the people fired Charlie Beck,” she told me. “We are claiming it as the people’s victory.”
Shootings are a big reason why. For activists like Abdullah — the Pan-African Studies chair at Cal State L.A. and a founding organizer of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles — the names of Carnell Snell, Ezell Ford, Jesse Romero, Kenney Watkins and many other LAPD shooting victims are never far from their lips. They oppose what she terms the expansion of the “stalker state.” The LAPD’s drone pilot program, approved by a civilian oversight panel in October, is but one example of how black and brown communities in Los Angeles have felt invaded by surreptitious surveillance and an over-militarized force.
Saying that Angelenos deserve a better police chief than Beck shouldn’t even be all that controversial. For one, Beck himself seems to agree. Upon announcing that he would leave his post, he declared that it was time to “get off the bull” and that there was “a great generation of leaders” for Mayor Eric Garcetti and city government to choose from. It was time for him to go — his words, not mine.
The question of who is next is less pressing than what that new chief will do with the powers of the office. This is a rare moment not just for the city’s leadership to respond to community demands and make a bold choice, but to join with Beck’s successor in reshaping the job itself.
Civil rights activists whom I spoke with believe, above all, that the police department should just be the police department. For instance, the police should not be the ones providing social services for the spiking homeless population. Cops generally are not licensed and trained mental health providers. Yet a 2015 city report found that of the more than $100 million spent on homelessness from the city’s General Fund, $87 million went to arrests, Skid Row patrols and mental health interventions by police. The same was true in 2016. Abdullah estimates that 54% of the entire General Fund is spent on the LAPD.
Forcing police officers to do a job other than the one they signed up for is a recipe for misunderstanding and even violence. Skid Row occupants like the late Charley “Africa” Keunang — killed after a scuffle in the spring of 2015 — are obviously at greater risk from police posing as amateur social workers (with guns) than they are from experienced and skilled people who are certified in their fields.
“They are not trained to do intervention and prevention work,” Abdullah said. “Under Beck, we see resources gobbled up that could be used to supplement professionals in that field. We need a mental health response to a mental health crisis.”
Pete White of Los Angeles Community Action Network made a similar observation, positing that it isn’t just the police chief’s job that needs to change, but the city’s thinking about policing itself.
“Law enforcement is situated within the larger construct of institutions and structures that define the system,” he said. “Policy-makers have to move beyond tough on crime rhetoric and policies because they actually make those issues intractable. Police shouldn’t be used as social sheriffs nor social workers, case managers, coaches and therapists. As crime continues to drop across the country, so should the budgets of police departments and [we should make] immediate investments into those things that truly make us safe: housing, green space, education, employment, civic engagement.”
Reduce the LAPD’s budget? A counter-argument might start with the fact that although homicide rates dropped by 6% in Los Angeles in 2017, violent crime increased for the fourth straight year. But there’s little reason to think less funding for police would worsen that problem, or that greater funding would fix it: It’s not a one-to-one relationship.
No one I interviewed wants to abolish the LAPD, nor to reduce its size. They simply want cops to be cops, and nothing else. They want a police chief with the political will to say that there are some jobs cops aren’t equipped to do, and who will tell the city to spend those General Fund dollars elsewhere. In turn, the new police chief should buy into something that’s pretty inexpensive: using restraint to earn the respect of the communities still besieged by law enforcement, all these years after the 1992 uprising.
Los Angeles city leadership has an unexpected opportunity to show how a more minimalist police force could benefit us all. They should start by selecting a police chief who embraces a scaled-back approach.
Jamil Smith is a contributing writer to Opinion.