Charlie Beck is a cop through and through, but last week he was introduced wholeheartedly to a world apart from crime stats and pressed blues: He became, essentially, a politician. Urged on by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who picked Beck as the 55th chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, the longtime cop accompanied him on a series of town hall meetings, at which Beck repeated what seemed to be well-coached talking points, including, “Cops count, character counts.”
As Villaraigosa backslapped, Beck gave his canned speeches and answered questions about graffiti, gangs and senior lead officers. The pair showed up in South Los Angeles, Van Nuys, El Sereno, the Westside and other spots before an expected easy confirmation by the Los Angeles City Council.
In South L.A., the splashing of the gleaming, new Exposition Center pool could be heard during Beck’s chat. At Van Nuys City Hall, the lights seemed to flicker each time the topic of terrorism was raised, spooking the silver-haired crowd. At the El Sereno Senior Center, soliloquies were dished out under a disco ball.
At one point in El Sereno, Beck established some distance between himself and the departed Chief William Bratton, the man who pushed him for the job. He said that while Bratton cleaned the top ranks of the LAPD and installed progressive, transparent leadership unseen in the department of old, Beck would make sure rank-and-file officers followed suit.
“A really difficult challenge for him was to drive it deeper because he doesn’t understand the rank and file at the level that is needed to push this deeper,” Beck said. “I do. That’s the difference.”
The Eastside crowd went wild. The lifelong law enforcer, whose father was a cop and whose children are cops, was already putting on a show. He’d raised eyebrows by sending out an introductory note, using the mayor’s e-mail account last week, causing some to wonder if Beck is entirely too close to the TV-loving, politically struggling Villaraigosa.
The thing is, Beck’s not running for office. In this sometimes-bizarre city, prospective chiefs don’t meet and greet the public before they get the job. The campaigning happens after the mayor has made a selection from a short list created by the Police Commission. Beck’s an insider, sure, but one whose own evolution took him from company man to reformer — and he isn’t a problematic choice for most.
Rather, for some City Hall critics, a problem lies with a backroom process that was so rapid and, perhaps, so prejudiced toward the man backed by Bratton that few outsiders applied for what is the brass ring of the police world.
“Beck was never in doubt,” says Ron Kaye, former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News and publisher of ronkayela.com. “The dog-and-pony shows after he’s been selected by the mayor, and going to meet the council for a bunch of softballs … it was always a done deal. There wasn’t any real process or search that was conducted.”
While tiny Beverly Hills conducted a three-month, nationwide search just for a new city manager, the nation’s most prestigious policing job was all but filled after about a month. Community meetings to gather input for the mayor-appointed Police Commission, which chose three finalists, were not half as well-publicized as Beck and Villaraigosa’s after-the-fact town hall meetings.
“We’re meant to be passive bystanders,” argues Kaye, “being sold whatever they want to sell.”
While two anonymous outsiders were on a list of semifinalists, such big-gun names as San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon and Miami Police Chief John Timoney did not turn up as finalists. The process was seen by some as a mayoral ramrod down the public’s throat of Bratton’s favorite soldier.
The town hall meetings only serve as fresh opportunities for Villaraigosa to get television time on the issue of crime.
UC Irvine Law School Dean Irwin Chemerinsky, a longtime City Hall watcher, doesn’t mind the rapid regime change but says, “My own preference would have been if they went outside the department” for chief. “I think part of Bratton’s success was that he was an outsider.”
The mayor insists that his choice of Beck was not preordained by the influence of the uberpopular Bratton. “I had a completely open mind from the beginning,” he tells L.A.Weekly. Although it is widely known now that the Police Commission was irritated when Villaraigosa undercut it by publicly announcing during the summer that a chief would be chosen by the fall, making it all but impossible politically for the Police Commission to launch a serious nationwide search that takes months, one commission member, Alan J. Skobin, says, “I don’t believe that Beck was anointed. I really don’t.”
And while many people seem to agree that Beck will continue the seven years of crime-reducing work by Bratton, some would have cast their votes differently — had they been given the chance.
Finalist and Valley Bureau head Michel Moore is a member of the Latin American Law Enforcement Association, a group that supported Moore’s candidacy. His Latino roots are really European rather than Latin — he has some Basque heritage — but he has been accepted as one of the association’s members nonetheless.
“Obviously we were disappointed initially because Deputy Chief Moore wasn’t selected, because he was an individual we had backed,” says group President Armando Perez, an LAPD Metropolitan Division cop. “But we have the utmost confidence in Chief Beck.”
Hearing about reports that he was the commission’s top-ranked finalist, Moore nodded: “They liked me.” But, he added, “The decision by the mayor — and I believe it will be confirmed by the City Council — is for Charlie Beck to take that [job] at this time. He will enjoy my full support.”
Others will wait and see. As commander of LAPD’s Central Division in 2002 and early 2003, Beck was in charge when the area’s most rampant open-air drug dealing took place along San Julian Street, a block or so from the station. After loft-dwellers started to move in and around Skid Row en masse and the Los Angeles Times, the Weekly and L.A. City Beat wrote about the intractable homelessness, narcotics trade and petty crime in 2004, LAPD started to clean up San Julian and other streets.
Beck, however, takes credit for the crime reduction, saying that his time at Central also changed him and made him part of a wave of Bratton-era leaders.
His transformation took place “when I was given my first autonomous geographic command,” Beck tells the Weekly. “Those are big words, but when I worked Central and was given total responsibility for the problem, Skid Row, that changed me because I owned that problem and I was going to do whatever it took that was legal, moral, ethical to fix that problem. And so that constant thinking about how to change a place dramatically affected how I look at what I do for a living. And it really wasn’t until I got that level of responsibility that that kicked in.”
Alice Callaghan, head of the family service center Las Familias del Pueblo, is likely the most ardent advocate for downtown’s homeless community and a kind of mayor of Skid Row. Any LAPD leader who works that beat has to get her input, welcome or not. Callaghan was not impressed with Beck’s performance.
“If Beck takes pride and credit in helping implement the Skid Row enforcement, it doesn’t say much to me about him, and it doesn’t say things are going to change at all,” Callaghan says. “He always said the reasonable things, but the unreasonable things kept happening. You don’t get to be chief unless you’re good at shining people like me on.”