When Mayor Lori Lightfoot needed an interim police chief to take over for Eddie Johnson, she found her guy in Los Angeles. That would be Charlie Beck, who ran the LAPD from 2009 to 2018 and will now oversee the Chicago Police Department while the city looks for a permanent replacement.
L.A. used to have a reputation as the city with the dirtiest cops and deadliest gangs in America. But as Lightfoot put it to me in an interview last year, Beck is one of the leaders who turned that reputation around. Today, Los Angeles has far fewer murders than Chicago, and seemingly far better police-community relations. Lightfoot sees its police department as a model of what CPD could be.
Before she staked out an identity as a corruption buster, Lightfoot’s number one issue was police reform. Remember, Lightfoot entered the race in May 2018, long before Rahm Emanuel announced he would not seek a third term. At the time, it looked as though the Laquan McDonald shooting would dominate the campaign. As the former chair of the Chicago Police Board, Lightfoot was a strong supporter of the ensuing consent decree imposed by President Obama’s Department of Justice.
In September of that year, I had a 45-minute conversation about police issues with Lightfoot. I asked her the million-dollar question of Chicago policing: why was it that, in recent years, New York and Los Angeles combined have had fewer murders than Chicago, even though they’re larger cities?
Lightfoot immediately began praising Los Angeles. In 1992, there were more than 1,000 murders there, as the Crips and the Bloods battled over turf. That was also the year of the Rodney King riots, in which 63 people were killed during an uprising over the acquittal of three LAPD officers for beating an unarmed black motorist. The city’s controversial police chief, Daryl Gates, was considered about as progressive as a Mississippi sheriff.
Later in the decade, dozens of cops in LAPD’s anti-gang unit were implicated in the Rampart scandal, for offenses such as a road rage shooting, stealing evidentiary drugs to sell on the street, and setting up bank robberies. The scandal, which inspired the movie Training Day and the TV series The Shield, resulted in a decade-long consent decree for the department.
Lightfoot was impressed with the changes brought on by that decree. “[In L.A.], the mayor at the time, [Antonio] Villaraigosa, and the police chief, [William] Bratton, used the consent decree to do a big shift in the way they engage with the community,” Lightfoot told me. “Fall of ’16, Charlie Beck and a civil rights attorney, a woman named Connie Rice, wrote an Op-ed together in The New York Times. These were folks that you wouldn’t think would have any relationship — a lawyer who sued the city [over] allegations of police misconduct, and a police chief, talking about the way they agreed to really move the needle in L.A. What that tells me is they didn’t fight the necessary change. They really reached out to the community and rethought how they were going to attack the underlying problems related to violence and police-community relationships.”
In the Op-ed Lightfoot mentioned, titled “Community Policing Can Work,” Beck and Rice discussed the department’s Community Safety Partnership unit, which was assigned to seven public housing projects:
“Here, officers call out residents’ names in greeting and patrol on foot with gang intervention specialists. The officers earn trust by participating in a range of neighborhood activities — everything from buying bifocals for older people to helping start a farmers’ market and sports leagues for kids. The unit’s officers are not promoted for making arrests, but for demonstrating how they diverted a kid from jail and increased trust. Above all, they do not view residents of high-crime areas as potential suspects or deportees but as partners in public safety.”
Los Angeles got results. Last year, 259 people were murdered in the city, a number Chicago can only dream of. The Rampart consent decree was lifted in 2013. Even before that, The New York Times published a laudatory article titled “In Los Angeles, a Police Force Transformed.” Calling the LAPD “a model police agency of the United States,” the Times cited polls finding that a strong majority of black and Latinx Angelenos approved of the department. The LAPD’s diversification efforts had transformed it from 61 percent white at the time of the Rodney King beating to 36 percent white 20 years later.
Lightfoot also liked that Los Angeles has a Mayor’s Office of Public Safety, which keeps the city’s chief executive in constant contact with first responders.
“New York and L.A. both have their respective mayor’s office of public safety, that are fully staffed up,” Lightfoot said. “L.A.’s got 20 or 30. In Chicago, we have two. They run point on everything related to public safety — police, fire, emergency management. They have an emphasis on violence eruption, being in communities, making sure retaliation doesn’t happen. They have a whole office on youth. They have an office on returning citizens [at the end of a prison sentence]. They have somebody on their staff who reports directly to the mayor and is running point on these issues. We don’t have that in Chicago.”
Beck has his critics out West. Last week, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles published an open letter to Chicagoans taking him to task for the fact that, despite L.A.’s drop in murders, the city still leads the nation in police-involved shootings and in-custody deaths.
“Chief Beck embodies everything a White-supremacist would bring to Chicago to contain, control, criminalize, and cause grave harm to Black, Brown, and poor communities,” the group wrote.
But Lightfoot has long been an admirer of Beck’s — and of the way he ran his police department. And when it comes to picking at top cop, it’s the mayor’s opinion that counts. Rahm Emanuel proved as much when he promoted Eddie Johnson in 2016, ignoring the three finalists chosen by Chicago’s police board.
Lightfoot says she isn’t conducting a backchannel search of her own. But if Beck’s name just so happens to appear on the board’s list of finalists — a longstanding Chicago tradition — we’ll have yet another outsider with a great cop ’stache running the Chicago Police Department.
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