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.
“I think our relationship with the LAPD is based on professionalism, and the fact that we've been honest and forthright, nonviolent,” says Mario Brito, the movement's main liaison with the police department.
“They actually came out with a different pattern of operating, and that should be applauded. The NYPD should learn something from the LAPD,” Brito says.
But if this sounds too good to be true, it might be. Protesters have scoffed at the mayor's announcement that the demonstrations “can't go on indefinitely.”
While negotiations are ongoing, eventually one side will have to give. Some protesters have even begun preparing for a police raid.
“It's in the back of everybody's mind here,” says Occupy organizer Taylor. He helped arrange a march Nov. 9 that ended at LAPD headquarters, where the group protested the police brutality at other Occupy camps and brandished signs saying things like “LAPD, we come in peace.”
“Let's just say the government has a tendency to say one thing and act in another fashion,” Taylor says, explaining that the camp is planning for the worst-case scenario.
“But at the same time, I don't think LAPD really wants to come in here,” he continues. “We're just all pissed off at all the other police departments and unfortunately LAPD has to hear about it, and luckily they've been very understanding.”
Beck hopes to keep it that way, although he adds, “That piece of ground just isn't sustainable. Protecting the ecology is one of my goals, along with protecting protesters' First Amendment rights and ensuring the day-to-day happenings at City Hall go on with minimal interruption.”
He expects that the camp probably will move on its own once heavy winter rains turn the lawn to mud, but some protesters say otherwise.
“The mud is a concern, and we're working on a plan to deal with it, but we're not moving,” Taylor says.
Should conflict arise, Beck says, the department will use force only as an absolute last resort. If some protesters actively want a confrontation, LAPD will “do its best” to convince them that isn't in the best interest of their message.
“We don't want to arrest anyone,” Beck says. “If it comes to the point where people want to get arrested, then that's what we'll do, but only because they want to” in order to make a statement.
Beck says his police department will employ nonlethal force if necessary, but he does not expect that to happen. “Using force — that's not my goal. The true measure of strength is when you restrain it.”
If he manages that while closing down the encampment in the Civic Center, Charlie Beck will be one of the few big-city police chiefs to have done so during the Occupy movement, at the same time giving Mayor Villaraigosa and the City Council political bragging rights.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.