By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
It's a crisp, cloudless afternoon in late October, making Los Angeles Police Department chief Charlie Beck squint as he walks out of LAPD headquarters to Occupy L.A. across the street.
"On the north lawn, you have the people who are here for the ideals. The south lawn is more diverse. People aren't here as much for the movement as for the experience, you know?" he says, chuckling.
Walking around the tent-strewn grounds of Los Angeles City Hall, the chief weaves past a guy holding a snake and a group of 20-somethings casually passing a blunt around by the lawn's central statue.
The lifelong cop isn't fazed by the open use of drugs.
"Marijuana use doesn't disturb me. The behavior of the group disturbs me, and the behavior of the group's been good," he says.
Beck is just one of several officers who interact with the protesters on a daily basis. LAPD has become a sort of middleman between them and the politicians at City Hall.
LAPD media relations officer Bruce Borihahn tells L.A. Weekly the department has been instructed not to kick out the protesters, and Beck is "waiting for further instruction" from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council.
Three weeks ago, the mayor suggested the encampment couldn't last forever. Then this week, Occupy crowds in numerous cities were shut down. In Oakland, Phoenix and New York, camps were raided and occupiers pushed out, their tents crushed by police.
Amidst this tension, at press time Villaraigosa reportedly had met with Beck to work out a plan to persuade the L.A. protesters to leave on their own.
Beck, who was expected to take that message to protesters, faced a tricky political situation.
Joshua Taylor, one of the movement's unofficial organizers, said several days earlier, "Villaraigosa can make his plans, we'll make ours, but we're not going anywhere."
The groundwork laid by LAPD in earlier days may help ease the way. In addition to reaching out to protesters, LAPD has met regularly with representatives from civil rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union. An LAPD captain is stationed at the camp 24 hours a day.
One of those captains, William Murphy, assesses the layout and makeup of the encampment in classic LAPD organizational and strategic terms: "We have 324 tents on this side and 109 on the north side, so this creates a good command post right here. Excellent visual," he explains, peering out the window of LAPD's makeshift two-room post in City Hall.
Despite its two-month tenure, the LAPD base, housed in a city government office two floors above the camp's "free speech zone" atop City Hall's south steps, looks relatively unused.
The main room is quiet and sunny, if not a little sterile, with a lone officer hunched over a computer in a corner. To the right of some empty tables hangs a handwritten schedule of officers' shifts and a list of the handful of incidents that have occurred since September.
Two assaults at the camp on Nov. 4 heightened officials' concerns, but protesters responded by recruiting volunteers for a new Occupy L.A. Security & Peacekeepers Committee.
"Down here, they don't give us too much trouble, and we don't want to give them any either," Murphy says.
He is the embodiment of the tolerant, good-natured, neighborhood beat cop. He's soft-spoken, mild-mannered and talks with a perpetual half-smile that would put even a cynical citizen at ease.
But Murphy isn't an LAPD public relations guy. He's a commanding officer of LAPD's Northeast Division, who used to be in charge of cadet training at the Police Academy. And he's practicing community policing, which usually is applied to neighborhoods rather than demonstrations.
Beck says he sees Occupy L.A. as a community rather than as a problem. "This is not a riot, a one-time event. This is a sustained movement, in my opinion, that we're gonna have to deal with maybe for all of 2012."
Beck is conscious of the department's past mistakes in dealing with protesters. "The LAPD does not want to be the story here. I could change the story real quick, but I don't want to do that," he says.
The last time that story played out was at the 2007 May Day protests in MacArthur Park, where LAPD's Metro Division used tear gas and rubber bullets on the crowd of peaceful protesters and journalists.
The city paid out nearly $13 million to those who were injured or mistreated in the May Day melee, a sharp reminder of the department's historically antagonistic relationship with protesters, dating back to the 1967 antiwar demonstrations in Century City.
"If controversy were a university, we'd have doctorates here," Beck says. "I think that's important to recognize. Successes are fleeting — and the mistakes last forever."
"Had Occupy L.A. happened 10 years ago, it would not have been pretty," says attorney Connie Rice, a critic of LAPD and founder of the Advancement Project. She visited Occupy Wall Street in New York and saw NYPD "looking for a reason to be able to use force," which she called "a very, very sharp contrast" to Los Angeles.
Occupy L.A. protesters agree.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city