By Beige Luciano-Adams
The unexpected announcement earlier this month that Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck would retire on June 27 – his 65th birthday – short of completing his second five-year term, drew both laudatory and sentimental reviews of his tenure and a harsh “good riddance” from long-time critics including local members of Black Lives Matter.
Widely considered a progressive reformer who has steered an embattled department toward transparency – with the implementation of officer body cams, an embrace of community policing initiatives, as well as his refusal to cooperate with federal authorities on immigration issues – Beck is equally maligned for his stewardship of a department critics say is marked by a culture of violence and expansionism.
“I am not just a member of the LAPD – I am the LAPD, it is my DNA,” Beck said during a press conference, citing timing, a strong candidate pool, and the desire to spend more time with family as driving reasons for his early departure. (The son of a police officer, Beck is a 40-year veteran whose two sons also currently serve on the force).
Speaking to The Hub several days after, Black Lives Matter founding member Melina Abdullah questioned that premise.
“They can call it a resignation if they want, but we know Charlie Beck was on record over and over extremely adamant about serving out his full term. A couple weeks ago he said he was not going anywhere,” Abdullah said, calling his espoused reason “not even a believable story.”
Rather, she said, “It’s because people demanded that he leave… We did work that pushed him out.”
In protest, Black Lives Matter has given a voice to rising, if ever-present, mistrust of the LAPD among minorities, frequently pointing to alarmingly high rates of racial profiling complaints and officer-involved killings as markers of Beck’s leadership – and to the LAPD as emblematic of a national culture of deadly police violence toward African American men.
Concurrently, the police union and affiliated politicians clashed with Beck over what they saw as his propensity for harsh discipline of his own officers and proposed all-civilian misconduct review panels (an issue on which Beck and his frequent critics, including homeless advocates, found themselves united, against exclusive civilian oversight).
Speaking beside Beck at the January press conference, Mayor Eric Garcetti offered emphatic praise for a “steady path” toward progressive reform amid competing pressures.
“I just want to thank Chief Beck on behalf of four million people, who, many of whom are alive today because of his work, many of whom are in a better place right now because of his work.”
Errol Southers, director of USC’s Safe Communities Institute, said that as a board member at the Institute, Beck has been “open to and supportive of sending personnel through programs I think 21st Century police forces are going to have to embrace and adopt.”
Where the traditional policing model has long since been discarded, Southers said, now “people call the police for everything and the police are increasingly working with special populations, and they have to understand those populations and be transparent.”
Beck encouraged his department to participate in education toward understanding and engaging “everything from homelessness to mental illness to the LGBTQ community,” Southers said.
Abdullah countered that the LAPD shouldn’t be addressing homelessness in the first place.
“Attitudes developed under Chief Beck about policing homelessness, criminalizing poverty, mental health challenges. So, when you talk about community policing, implicitly we understand this is a code word for expansion of the police state where police have no business doing this job,” Abdullah said, asserting the department lays claim to an outsize chunk of the city budget, “robbing other entities that could actually be much more effective in building safe communities.”
Part of Beck’s legacy is undoubtedly in his branding, working to shift public perception of an historically corrupt and besieged department – in which efforts he is seen as successor to (equally divisive) former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton’s legacy.
“L.A. as a city is a leader, globally, and think it’s the same with LAPD. I’ve been in number of law enforcement agencies including the FBI, and when you say LAPD anywhere in the world you don’t have to explain,” Southers said.
While LAPD’s global reputation can be read differently by individuals on either side of this debate, Southers said Beck has been “critical in maintaining that image in good and bad times.”
“Things that don’t always go the way you want them to; he seemed to be able to manage with degree of success. And I think he’ll leave the department in good shape with his successor.”
Moving forward, Southers said input from Black Lives Matter – which he is concerned may be targeted by law enforcement – should be taken seriously by the next LAPD chief. “It’s going to be an ongoing challenge; (they) have to acknowledge there’s a reality to what they’re saying.”