Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck is taking jabs from critics on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots. A normally considerate speaker, Beck is being criticized for comparing his time as an undercover detective with "hippie hair" to the experience of African-Americans who are stopped by police.
The top cop said he had been pulled over hundreds of times during those days in the 1980s because of his appearance. The remarks were made to director Sacha Jenkins for his documentary about the relationship between African-Americans and cops, Burn Motherf*cker, Burn, scheduled to air tonight on Showtime.
"When LAPD Chief Charlie Beck compares his experiences as a long-hared undercover cop to that of your typical African-American's experience with the police — because Beck alleges he was pulled over 'hundreds of times' while both on and off duty — his assertion that he himself was profiled is a bit naive," Jenkins said via email. "Anyone who gets pulled over hundreds of times should probably be in jail — especially if they're a cop. A person of color would never have the opportunity to be pulled over hundreds of times because he or she would be serving a life sentence after getting pulled over 11 times."
"To compare someone with long hair to what black people went through, I don't know what's wrong with him," says Jasmyne Cannick, a journalist and frequent critic of the department. "I'm sure if he actually did ever get pulled over for having long hair, which sounds absurd, he wasn't subjected to a lot of the same treatment blacks and Latinos were by his department."
And Beck had something of a VIP card, she adds: "You're white and you had a badge."
A spokesman for the chief did not respond to our request for comment.
Beck has been targeted in recent years by Black Lives Matter protesters unhappy with police shootings of African-Americans. But even in heated debates with critics, he usually fields tough questions with measured timing and relative reason. This wasn't one of those times. "Beck was trying to connect with me," Jenkins said. "He was trying to relate to me. So I give him some respect for making an effort, no matter how absurd it might come off."
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In an interview for the documentary, which covers the L.A. riots and other instances of tension between African-Americans and police nationwide, Jenkins asks Beck, “If you were me, and you were in my body, would you be afraid of the police … ?”
“For about four, five years of my career I worked surveillance, and I had very long hair at a time when very long hair was not popular, and my job was to work criminals in tough neighborhoods,” Beck responds. “And I have literally — because of the way I looked and because of the car I drove, and the way I drove it — I've been stopped hundreds of times. Hundreds. And there is always tension. Always.”
Beck tells Jenkins that those stopped by police need to empathize with the person who has a badge, a gun, radio-ready backup, an armored car door and, sometimes, a ballistic vest, because “maybe the officer has information you don’t know about.”
“Think about what the police officer is going through as he approaches a car, maybe at night, maybe it’s dark, maybe he has information you don’t know about,” Beck says. “Think about what he’s going through and try to empathize with their situation. And what I tell my cops is, the driver, empathize with his situation. … Maybe he just got pulled over yesterday by an officer that didn’t treat him very well. … If there’s empathy on both sides of that transaction, you know, the everybody’s going to be fine.”