What police departments can learn about race relations from the LAPD

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck is interviewed after police arrested protesters in Los Angeles, California, following Monday's grand jury decision in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, November 26, 2014. (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

Earlier this month, former President Bill Clinton sat down for an interview with Juan Carlos López of CNN En Español. The conversation didn’t get much play in the press, but one remark in particular was intriguing. Asked about the protests that consumed Ferguson, Mo., after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown, Clinton directed López’s attention elsewhere: to the City of Angels.

“We used to have a terrible problem in Los Angeles,” he said. “And almost no one in the world has noticed that while the Ferguson controversy was going on, a civilian in Los Angeles was killed in a confrontation with the police. But because of the dramatic improvements in community relations and the sense of the people in the community that their lives had dignity, the process unfolded there as it should, and there were no mass demonstrations.”

“That's what we've got to do everywhere in America,” Clinton concluded.

The civilian Clinton was referring to — in case you haven’t heard — was Ezell Ford. On Monday, Aug. 11, two days after the death of Michael Brown, Ford was walking along West 65th Street in L.A.’s high-crime Florence neighborhood. What happened next is still unclear; the investigation is ongoing. Police claim that the 25-year-old Ford resisted their inquiries, “made suspicious movements,” “tackled the lead officer” and eventually tried to grab the officer’s gun. Witnesses say that Ford, who had a history of depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was gunned down in cold blood after complying with police. Either way, the end result was all too familiar. Another confrontation with the cops; another unarmed black man shot dead.

Yet that’s where the similarities to the Brown case end. Ferguson burned. Los Angeles didn’t. For anyone who remembered the Rodney King riots, which broke out in 1992 mere blocks from where Ford was killed, the difference was striking.

In this April 30, 1992 file photo, looters mill in the parking lot of the ABC Market in South-Central Los Angeles as violence and looting ensued on the first day of riots following the verdicts in the Rodney King assault case. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

So what has changed? How has the LAPD evolved? Why was it candlelight vigils and peaceful protests this time — instead of, say, looting and arson? In Brooklyn, two cops were shot at point-blank range and killed Saturday afternoon by a man named Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who was allegedly retaliating for the slayings of Brown and Eric Garner (the unarmed African-American choked to death by an NYPD officer in July). Is there a reason this happened in New York and not L.A.? Is it really possible that Los Angeles has cracked some sort of policing code — that, in Clinton’s words, the city has already done “what we’ve got to do everywhere in America?”

Yahoo News recently put these questions to current LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. A 37-year veteran with a bushy mustache, heavy brow and serious dirt-bike habit, Beck has been front and center for the most tumultuous and transformative era in LAPD history — and he has a lot to say about how the United States might better handle the Fergusons of the future.

“The Los Angeles Police Department split this city in half racially,” Beck admits. “We caused a racial divide that’s never been equaled. But I believe that if you have the power to do that, then the reverse is true: You can use that same power to bring people together.”

***

Bringing people together wasn’t always the LAPD’s goal. When chief William H. Parker took command in 1950, the department was brazenly corrupt and almost comically unprofessional. Well-connected Angelenos carried badges that let them flout the law; politicians who threatened the department risked waking up in an unfamiliar bed with a debilitating hangover, a naked constituent and a Los Angeles Times photographer looking on. Parker purged the LAPD of political corruption and transformed it into a more disciplined force modeled on the Marines.

But Parker’s moral bent — he famously described the LAPD as “the thin blue line” that separated civilization from chaos — had nasty racial undertones. As John Buntin has written, Parker “publicly took issue with the civil rights movement while turning a blind eye to his officers’ sometimes brutal conduct in black and Latino neighborhoods. Almost every week, African American newspapers published horror stories of black Angelenos stopped, verbally abused, unlawfully detained or beaten by the police.”

In spite of the LAPD’s divisive tactics — or perhaps because of them — Parker became one of the most popular figures in California. In the wake of the Watts riots of 1965, whites started to see the chief as their “security blanket,” according to Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler, and Parker was happy to stoke their fears. “It is estimated that by 1970, 45 percent of the metropolitan area of Los Angeles will be Negro,” he declared. “If you want any protection in your home and family in the future ... you're going to have to get in and support a strong police department. If you don't do that, come 1970, God help you."

By the time Beck joined the force 12 years later, not much had changed. Chief Daryl Gates, a Parker protégé, was in charge; Parker’s insular, militaristic ideology still prevailed. “The philosophy was that you didn’t want to be too close to the people you served, because that’s how corruption started,” Beck says. “So we had this very 911-oriented, triage-like policing where you come in, take action and leave. You don’t do any big problem-solving. You don’t work in partnership with the community. We were very much seen as an occupying army.”

The nadir of the LAPD’s occupying-army phase came in late 1980s and early 1990s. Hoping to combat the crack epidemic — and the concurrent spike in violent crime — Chief Gates launched a program that came to be known as Operation Hammer. “For months, hundreds of officers swept through black neighborhoods on weekends,” The New York Times reported. “Every law was enforced. Every infraction became a cause for arrest. Thousands of black Angelenos were arrested each Friday and Saturday for minor offenses and held in the city jail, their cars impounded (and not infrequently stripped of stereos and rims), then released on Monday.” Between 1984 and 1989, complaints of police brutality increased 33 percent; by 1990, more than 50,000 people, the vast majority of them black or Hispanic, had been arrested in raids.

One of the gang sergeants working Operation Hammer was Charlie Beck. At the time, Beck — whose dad served under William Parker and whose godfather was Daryl Gates — thought the program was part of a “logical progression” in policing. But a few years later, when the racial animosities aggravated by Gates’s approach erupted into the Rodney King riots, Beck changed his mind.

“I remember as a young sergeant coming up during one of the Hammer sweeps and seeing some officers who had made a stop of some gang members,” Beck says. “They literally had the whole block on their knees with their hands behind their heads. It was kids and women and all of that. You could just see that everybody there thought of this as a war.”

Beck sighs. “Operation Hammer and all of the lower-level narcotic sweeps didn’t have any effect on the problem,” he says. “Matter of fact, the more we did it, the worse the problem got. You can make a social group stronger by giving them a common enemy, and we did that, I think. The enemy became us. It’s just totally different than the way we would do it now.”

***

Bill Bratton deserves much of the credit for that change. When the former Boston and New York police chief arrived in Los Angeles in 2002, the LAPD was operating under federal oversight; a rogue unit in the Rampart Division had been caught planting evidence, beating gang members and lying under oath. New York had 53 cops for every 10,000 residents; Chicago had 49. L.A. had a mere 27. And unlike the other departments Bratton had turned around, the LAPD wasn’t demoralized. It was “parochial and proud” — and suspicious of outsiders.

William Bratton, named Thursday to the top job at the Los Angeles Police Department speaks to about 100 police officers during a roll call at the Hollywood division of the LAPD, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2002, in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Charlie Beck was no exception. When Bratton took command, Beck was a new captain in one of the department’s downtown divisions. “We hadn’t had a great result with our last outside chief,” he explains, referring to Philadelphia’s Willie Williams. “So I was, and I think a lot of people were … uncomfortable is not the right word, but wary of where this was going to take us. It just hadn’t worked before.”

But as Bratton began to implement his reforms, Beck’s “view of him soon changed.” Bratton brought “broken windows" policing to Los Angeles; cops were now tasked with creating an atmosphere of order and lawfulness by enforcing minor ordinances in consultation with the community. (The "broken windows" theory is controversial — criminologists have questioned its efficacy and civil rights groups have described it as discriminatory — but Bratton maintains that his policies “improve[d] the quality of life for residents and reduce[d] crime” in both L.A. and New York.) He made sure fewer suspects were forced to kneel on the street with their hands behind their heads or stand spread-eagled against a wall to be frisked. He required captains to respond in person to homicides — he often went himself — and demanded that officers treat dead bodies with greater respect. He publicly embraced Washington’s consent decree, demonstrating his commitment to transparency and change. And Bratton aggressively courted the city’s civil rights leadership, consulting with the Urban League’s John Mack, one of the department’s most outspoken critics, before taking office and asking attorney Connie Rice, who had repeatedly sued the LAPD, to conduct a new investigation into the Rampart Division scandal.

Perhaps Bratton’s most consequential reform, however, was changing the mindset of his top managers. “Being a captain used to be a kick-back job," L.A. police-officer union President Paul Weber told Governing magazine in 2009. “Now they are literally on call 24/7. It's probably one of the hardest jobs in the department.” The shift was spurred by Compstat, the computerized system Bratton developed in New York. Compstat doesn’t just track crime; it holds commanders accountable for crime surges in their precincts. With their reputations and jobs on the line, officers with deep roots in the department suddenly began to think outside the box, turning to gang interventionists, for example, when shooting wars broke out in South L.A.

Beck was one of those officers. Soon after becoming deputy chief in 2006, he attended a meeting of gang interventionists in person. As John Buntin reported a few years later, “the group was startled to have an LAPD deputy chief just show up — in civilian clothes, no less — and even more startled to have him stay for several hours, listening and talking.”

Beck remains a Bratton fan today. “Bill brought to L.A. the philosophy that police matter,” he says. “That we could make a difference. That crime going up or down is on us. Once you take ownership, you look at it completely differently.”

By the time Bratton left the LAPD in 2009, nearly 8 in 10 Angelenos were telling the Los Angeles Times they either “strongly approved” or “somewhat approved” of police performance, an improvement of 18 percentage points since 2005 and almost 40 points since 1991. The percentages of blacks and Latinos who approved of the LAPD, meanwhile, had risen by double digits during the previous four years, to 76 percent and 68 percent, respectively. Asked in a separate poll whether most LAPD officers treated them, their friends and their family with respect, a majority of respondents from every racial and ethnic group said yes. And the violent-crime rate was 54 percent lower in Bratton’s final year than it was just before he arrived.

“Back in 2002, minority Los Angeles did not want Mr. Bratton,” Connie Rice has written. But “Mr. Bratton slowly broke down the hostility from the black community and, once crime began dropping, he won its backing and eventual admiration.”

In July 2009, a federal judge lifted the LAPD’s consent decree. Charlie Beck took over in November.

***

Today’s LAPD isn’t perfect. Not even close. Ezell Ford’s family is suing the department for $75 million and accusing cops of intimidation and harassment. Far too many unarmed young men of color are beaten and killed by LAPD each year. A Los Angeles Times investigation recently revealed that the department has been underreporting violent crimes. And Beck himself has been embroiled in controversies over favoritism and nepotism, the latter involving his daughter’s horse.

Still, the department has made fundamental progress on key civil rights issues — and Beck thinks other cities would be wise to emulate Los Angeles going forward. “It isn’t that things will never go wrong in policing, because they will,” says Beck, who announced Saturday that LAPD officers will wear black mourning bands over their badges “in honor of our fallen brothers” assassinated in Brooklyn. “We will have controversial uses of force. We will have these issues. It’s just too dynamic a job. But while individuals can make mistakes, the organization can’t. The organization has to be above that.”

Beck won’t speculate about what went wrong in Ferguson. But in Los Angeles, he says, “we have worked very hard to create a police department that reflects the city it serves.” When Beck started in 1977, the LAPD was “largely male, largely white.” Now it’s 45 percent Hispanic, 13 percent African American, and 20 percent female. White males are a minority — 33 percent. The department’s racial and ethnic demographics almost exactly mirror the demographics of Los Angeles as whole.

Beck has also focused on “building relationships” and “investing in our human capital” in “minority communities, communities that are economically disadvantaged, communities where the schools are tougher.” As examples of this approach, he points to the LAPD’s gang-intervention program (which has grown to 100 caseworkers since 2008) and cadet academy (which has trained 6,000 14- to 21-year-olds, most of whom are black or Hispanic). “That’s also 6,000 families that have developed a relationship with the police department,” Beck argues. “That’s 6,000 families that have worked with us enough to trust us.”

Meanwhile, gang crime has been cut in half over the last five years — a development that’s due, at least in part, to Beck’s Community Safety Partnership Police program. A dozen plainclothes officers are assigned to each of L.A.’s historically gang-controlled projects for five years at a time. They aren’t rewarded for making arrests. Instead, they’re rewarded for planting gardens, chaperoning kids to class, ensuring access to preschool and organizing sports teams. As a result, “Over the past three years, we had less than a handful of murders in our major housing projects,” Beck says, “and every one of them was solved by community interaction. That never used to happen.”

Connie Rice, for one, is impressed. “Bratton turned the ship around, recruiting top brass into his vision of public trust policing,” she wrote earlier this year. “Beck has had the tough job of pushing that vision deeper down into the ranks of the LAPD, and he has succeeded. More and more, officers see themselves as builders of the community instead of its enforcers.”

The LAPD is continuing to innovate. Over the next nine months, the city will equip 7,000 of its 9,900 officers with body cameras to record interactions with civilians, becoming the first major city police department to institute such a policy. A 2012 trial in Rialto, Calif., found that the number of complaints against police plummeted 88 percent when body cameras were turned on; use of force incidents dropped by 60 percent. “Body cameras are not a magic bullet, but I do think they are a critical tool to build trust,” Beck says. “Because the question then becomes, ‘Why wouldn’t you have these? Why wouldn’t you do this?’ And that’s a hard one to answer.”

Since Ferguson, Beck has been fielding calls from police chiefs around the country. They’re all searching for the same thing: advice. So what does he tell them?

“After one of these incidents, there’s no time to be knocking on somebody’s door and saying, ‘Hey, I need you to stand with me at a press conference,’" Beck explains. “You have to put money in the bank of trust — because that’s what you draw down on when you have an incident like Ferguson.”

“The example I use is this,” Beck continues. “Young police officers, they want to make arrests. They measure themselves and each other by how many and how big. I equate that to fishing. Well, I’m the boss. I don’t want them fishing. I want them draining the lake. In L.A., we’re looking for people who will change a neighborhood, not empty a neighborhood of criminals. And those are two very different things.”