Chief of Police Charlie Beck Answers Tough Questions About Police Brutality, Prop. 47, and the City’s Spike in Violence

Beck, whose family has been part of the department for three generations, wants to make the city safer and build public trust

Charlie Beck likes to think of himself as a cop’s cop. He doesn’t bluster like Daryl Gates, the controversial Los Angeles Police Department chief whose tenure ended after the 1992 riots, and he lacks William Bratton’s heat-seeking political instincts. But his knowledge of the force runs deep. The son of a deputy chief and the father of two LAPD officers, Beck has spent more than four decades with the department. He’s seen the city at its most violent and the force at its most spectacularly flawed. When he succeeded Bratton as chief in 2009, the city was enjoying its lowest level of violent crime since the 1960s.

L.A. wasn’t the only big city experiencing a lull in crime, and it’s not the only one that has seen a spike over the past two years, either. But the 20 percent rise in violent offenses is among several of the tests Beck is facing. Recent police shootings of unarmed civilians—including Ezell Ford Jr. and Charly Keunang, both of whom were mentally ill and black—have rekindled age-old criticisms about how the force patrols minority areas of the city. There’s also the difficulty of policing with such a comparatively small force: While New York has 34,500 officers and Chicago has about 12,000, Los Angeles has 9,921. We sat down with Beck in his glass-walled office across the street from City Hall, a few days shy of the 25th anniversary of the beating of Rodney King at the hands of LAPD officers.

Your first big challenges as an officer were dealing with the PCP craze in the late 1970s and then the crack epidemic of the ’80s. How did those periods shape your experience?
It was a frenetic time. I worked in South Los Angeles, and we would routinely have these huge battles with people on PCP because they were so violent. As we went into the ’80s, the crack epidemic started to take hold. The crime rate was about three times what it is now. Homicide rate, too. You could just watch lives disappear on the street. People would succumb to the addiction, and families would break up and life became very cheap.

How did the LAPD combat that?
This was in the time of rock houses. There was major gang influence. People would take over a home and set up retail cocaine or crack sales. They’d put up an armed gate with one guy inside with the product and a gun, and he’d sell all day. We would hit five or six of those houses a day—send in an undercover, do a buy, pry the door off, and make the arrest. We would do that over and over; our arrest rate was about 1,000 a month. We had phone lines set up for people in the neighborhood to tell us where the crack houses were, and the tips would just flood in. We would start work at around noon, and we would work off our list and do the raids. The next day we’d come back in, and there would be a new list.

Did it feel as if you were on the losing side of a war?
Oh, yeah. All of that led up to Rodney King and then the riots, when we were having 1,100 murders a year. My conclusion as a police officer up through the late ’90s was that it would always get worse. And it always did. It was kind of idyllic when I was a young cop, and then it got more violent, more dangerous. The infrastructure of the city was deteriorating. So that was my conclusion. I was a lieutenant in the mid-’90s. And that’s when I began to see that there were ways to work this. I began to go in the opposite direction and think that we could do better and more effective policing.

What changed?
The first thing you have to accept is that you can make a difference. You have to accept that crime is not inevitable. That was Bratton’s litmus test for police management: “Do you think crime is a given?” I moved firmly onto the side where I thought, “If you put in the right pieces in the landscape, you could change a neighborhood.”

Beck in 1977 with his father, George
Beck in 1977 with his father, George

Photograph courtesy of Charlie Beck

Bratton was the consummate outsider. He was the cop from Boston who took over the force in New York City and, later, Los Angeles. He brought a fresh perspective that resulted in sweeping changes. You’re the polar opposite. Your family’s been part of this department for three generations.
My dad retired in 1980. My sister came on the job at about that time. My wife was a sheriff’s deputy. I have a couple of cousins who are retired L.A. police officers. I have three kids, and one of them works for the sheriff’s department and the other two work here.

What does it mean to be so heavily invested in law enforcement?
It’s one of the reasons that when I took on the job of chief, I decided it was more beneficial than burdensome. This is the police department that we make, so I want it to be the right kind of police department to leave to my children. I don’t want them to feel the same way I did in the ’90s. We are not just here to watch civilization slide off the edge of a cliff. We’re here to make a difference.

In a department that has been known for cronyism and corruption, does your insider status make it more difficult to bring change?
If I had never been introduced to Bratton, it would’ve been more difficult. But I worked with him closely. He sent me to a lot of places to look at other police agencies. I saw how he did things differently, how he looked at the bigger picture of policing rather than the Los Angeles model. That was one of the reasons he endorsed me for chief, because I was different from everyone else.

How would you describe that difference?
Nobody understands the history of this organization better than I do. And nobody has seen us fail more obviously than I have. I could see the places we never want to go again. Rather than being tied to the past, it’s about how understanding the past can liberate you from it.

When the department or the mayor talks about the recent spike in crime, they are quick to cite increases in other big cities, like Chicago or Houston. You also complain about Proposition 47, which was approved by voters in 2014 and reclassified many nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors. So is the rise due to forces beyond your control or—given the guiding principle you just described—is it something the LAPD can impact?
The crime picture across the country is mixed. In California it is universal: Every major city in the state saw a crime increase last year. Some of that has to do with how we measure crime, but that’s a side discussion. The main difference is Prop. 47. If you ride around with my police officers, as I do, that’s what they feel. People who normally would’ve been in custody and had the opportunity to go into rehabilitation don’t have that anymore. Our biggest problem with Prop. 47 is that we haven’t replaced incarceration with anything. Addicts are addicts because they can’t control their own behavior, so you have to incentivize them in some way to do that. Treatment is the most humane way, but you can’t give them nothing, which is what we have now.

Other law enforcement officials in California have linked Prop. 47 to a jump in crime as well, but there’s no definitive research one way or the other.
I’ve been cautious about drawing a causal relationship, because it’s early. Unfortunately we have to suffer the consequences before we can officially designate the cause. But Prop. 47 is the one thing that has changed. I’m the same chief, it’s the same basic police department, same city.

Beck and Mayor Eric Garcetti last September in an electric car slated to join the LAPD’s fleet
Beck and Mayor Eric Garcetti last September in an electric car slated to join the LAPD’s fleet

Photograph by Nick Ut/AP Photo

You’re walking this line of needing to respond to a rise in crime at the same time you’re being criticized for how this response disproportionately impacts African American communities. Members of the Black Lives Matter movement hold you accountable and want you fired. Do you think they have a legitimate beef?
Rather than pick Black Lives Matter as the standard for race in America, we need to have a bigger discussion that’s not just “Are there inequities racially in policing?” but “Are there inequities racially in America?” They affect each other too much to be pulled apart. You can’t have a part of society that is adversely affected economically, in housing, medically, and in employment and expect there not to be other disparities that go with that. Whether it’s mortality rates, incarceration rates, or victimization rates, all of those things go together. America needs to look at itself and ask, “Why are there so many disparities for people of color?”

OK, but you don’t get to write the tax code in this country. You do get to decide the policing strategy in Los Angeles. So what is your piece of that?
We need to have a head-on conversation about the use of deadly force and make sure we’re doing everything we can to limit that in a way that still keeps officers and the public safe and allows us to perform our function. We need to do things that work on deeper levels at building community trust, whether it’s community-safety partnerships [in which police are embedded in housing projects so they can forge relationships with residents] or foot beats like we’ve done up and down Crenshaw. One of the ways you do that is you have to have sufficient resources.

All right, but do you feel that sometimes people in these neighborhoods have a legitimate gripe with the way they are policed?
Anytime you have areas that are highly impacted by violent crime, they are going to see more contact with law enforcement, and they’re going to have a different view. That’s why, in the neighborhoods that have the toughest policing interactions, we spend the most time on community building. With our community-safety partnerships in Watts, the way that people feel about police has changed. This is about a universal change in the way we are perceived in these neighborhoods, whether it’s Watts, Jordan Downs, Imperial Courts, or any place where we have been able to put significant resources that are tied not only to crime reduction but to community building.

The Police Commission just approved new rules mandating that de-escalation be part of department policy. This comes after several tragic incidents made it difficult for the public to understand how the department polices itself. The commission said the shooting of Ezell Ford in South L.A. in 2014 was out of policy, yet you thought it was legitimate. After an officer shot Brendon Glenn, a homeless African American man, last year in Venice, you said it was essentially manslaughter and recommended criminal prosecution even before the commission weighed in.
Sure. One was legitimate policing, and the other was a criminal act. The Venice shooting is so different from the other 47 shootings that occurred that year, you can’t expect me to act the same way. When I see uses of force that, in the initial analysis, appear to have been justified by circumstance, then I will say that, too. Now, a lot of times there are facts that are unclear, but I check those before I make my statements. I’m not watching it on the news.

Photograph by Maarten de Boer
Photograph by Maarten de Boer

You’ve asked the city council to eventually increase the force to 12,500 from the current 9,921 sworn officers. But the department hasn’t managed to reach the 10,000 officers the city has already said the LAPD could hire. Why is increasing the size of the force so difficult?
If we want to police the way we’ve been talking about—with direct interaction in high-crime neighborhoods, where police see their job as building community—then it’s going to take more cops. In the housing developments, the ratio in the community-safety partnerships, which has been recognizedby President Obama, is about twice the ratio of what we have in the rest of the city. I know the city wants that kind of policing. With what we have now I can do response policing, 911 policing, then hot spot policing, and counterterrorism.

But why haven’t you been able to hire even up to the 10,000 mark?
We’re working on streamlining the hiring process with the city’s personnel department so we can get applicants into the academy more quickly. We have to see if we are disqualifying candidates for the wrong reasons. If you have some marks on your credit history, should that be a disqualifier? If you had a couple of discipline issues as a student, should that be a disqualifier?

In the time since you became chief, the national conversation around policing has become more critical, more charged. In Los Angeles a lot of the goodwill that came from reduced crime has evaporated. After a lifetime with the force, what kind of legacy do you think you will leave behind?
I can’t fix what goes on 3,000 miles from here. There is going to be awful policing that occurs just because there’s so much policing that occurs. But those aren’t our standards, and we have to be better than that. I want this to be a police department that sees itself as part of the city. There was a good reason why chiefs many decades ago wanted to make themselves separate from the politics of the city, but that time has passed, and now we need to be part of the city fabric. I want a police department that treats individuals fairly, not only on the street but inside the stations. And one that is effective, that knows how to do its job. I tell our people that all the time: That’s all I want from you. Make this city safer and build public trust. If you do those two things, we will not only survive all of this, but we’ll be better for it.

Gabriel Kahn, a professor at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, wrote about Chinese tourism in the January issue.