After eight years heading one of the nation’s largest police agencies, retiring Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck gives TCR a frank assessment of the challenges of being a big-city reform chief, what it takes to change the culture of American policing today, and some key lessons he learned.
As he prepares to move on after eight years heading one of the nation’s largest police agencies, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck sits down with TCR’s West Coast bureau Chief Joe Domanick for a candid conversation about the challenges of being a big-city reform chief, what it takes to change the culture of American policing today, and some key lessons he learned along the way.
(Note: This interview has been abridged and edited for clarity.)
The Crime Report: Let’s pretend you’re speaking to a group of reform-minded, big-city chiefs. What would you tell them is essential to understand about changing a department’s culture?
Charlie Beck: That you change culture by everything you do. Just saying that you want a more empathetic, more community-building police department focused on helping communities is only one percent of culture change.
What’s essential is how you interact with people and model your behavior. One of my core beliefs is that the way a chief treats his cops is the way that they will treat the community. If you treat cops like fools, or if you’re over-dependent on harsh discipline, that’s what they’ll learn [and act out on the street]. They’ll see the way that you deal with conflict and adversity, and how you deal with people you don’t agree with, and act accordingly.
TCR: Once you were selected chief, did you actually sit down and write a reform plan?
Beck: Yes. A lot of times managers think: I don’t need that, I know where I’m going. But the organization needs a plan. It needs a road map. We wrote a list of things we wanted to do. Of course, they change all the time. You achieve goals or you modify goals, the circumstances change. You can’t write ‘em on a chalkboard and just leave them up there for eight years. You’ve got to look at them constantly; while doing self-evaluation to realize what you’re good at and what you’re not. And then you’ve got to find people to fill the gaps. That’s really important.
TCR: One of the biggest challenges a reform chief faces is getting buy-in from the rank-and-file and key opinion-makers within a department. How did you go about it?
Beck: I did it the obvious way ─ through the traditional chain-of-command-stuff [from the top down.] But I also believe in managing from the ground up. So I went to roll calls in every station. And in every division for my first three years as chief I worked a partial shift side-by-side with officers in their black and whites. And I did all things that are iconic culturally within the LAPD that demonstrate that we’re all cut from the same basic cloth. For example, I hate to run [in department races] but I do it because it’s part of the culture.
TCR: And what did demonstrating that we’re all in this together get you?
Beck: When you say things or take actions that [many officers] don’t intrinsically agree with, like, for example, undocumented folks should be able to obtain driver’s licenses, they’ll think, “I don’t really get why that’s important to (the chief), but I’ll just wait and see.” In other words, it’s not necessarily that they buy into your ideas. It’s that they buy in to you as having their best interests at heart.
TCR: What else can you say about troop buy-in?
Beck: First, understand that it’s going to be very difficult to change an organization. Then create a bond with a peer leader in one station, and that bond spreads through the whole station. (Finally,) you want to create bonds, but not be thought of as one of the boys, because you’re not, and you have to make that clear If you want to command respect.
TCR: The [LAPD] union resisted many of your [progressive] reforms. But you were able to maneuver between a very liberal police commission and a very conservative union to get body/patrol car cameras, and a new de-escalation shooting policy. Talk a little about that.
Beck: First of all, you’ve got to understand why they want what they want, and you’ve got to know what you want and what you’re willing to settle for. Then you have to understand what the real sticking points are for the union. Second, always gauge who has the most support with the rank-and-file. You or the union?
Who will they follow? Make sure beforehand you’ve got capital in the bank [of good will] among the troops; and that you are as good as you can be on that part.
TCR: What’s the biggest lesson you learned about officer discipline?
Beck: Organizations want to overreact to small things and underreact to big things. That is very bad management. As a chief I want to insure that if officers do serious things from which there is no return, that they have no opportunity to return. So officers have to accept that kind of bottom line and deal with it.
But you also have to recognize what’s important and what’s not. We sometimes spend an enormous amount of resources over very little. You can lose a lot of organizational authority by being seen as the kind of a chief who is more concerned about what color your socks are than whether or not you’re telling the truth in court. You know [the LAPD’s] been that kind of organization before. My lesson to anybody is: Don’t do that.
TCR: What’s the most effective way to deal with a civilian oversight entity, the police commission in your case?
Beck: Involve those individuals with the members of the police department enough so they will grow to understand that these are by and large extremely good-intentioned, good-hearted people. And if they are involved enough, they’ll see just how difficult this job is. And that maybe that expectation of perfect handling of every incident or perfect handling of any incident in my estimation is something that is a false expectation. I think that’s really important.
And I think that’s what you have to look at with police commissioners. They’re going to influence you, but you can also influence them.
TCR: Talk about the political skills and strategies that a chief needs in order to deal with the multitude of players.
Beck: First, you’ve got to know the lay of the land and that every city is different, and that every political group is different. Then you have to know who are the lever-pullers. Who are the actual people that have influence? That is an art in and of itself.
No one person can truly know that. That’s why you’ve got to surround yourself with people who understand at a really deep level who’s influential in these individual communities. Recognize that there are some people that you’re never going to change. Then you’ve also got to recognize those who, no matter what you do, will think that you’re fantastic. That’s about 10 percent on your end. And then work on the middle.
TCR: And how do you work on the middle?
Beck: First of all, you have to explain your actions as best you can in public so people gain trust. You’ve got to show respect, spend the time necessary─or make sure you have emissaries doing so if you can’t spend the time. In every major community I have a chief’s liaison person who works within that community to have an impact, especially in the African American community.
Then you have to know which divisions are important on the macro level. I have 21 divisions. Three or four of them could be a flashpoint for a riot; that could cause a huge political upheaval with very small incidents. A couple of others in which people have a huge political influence. And then you’ve got to pick the right people to go to these places, [people] who understand the dynamics.
People in these areas have one or two issues that they find immensely important. So you’ve got to recognize what those issues are, whether it’s human trafficking in the San Fernando Valley, or immigrant rights in East LA, or African-American interactions with police. You’ve got to not only know that, but make sure you work to address that with them individually. It’s just about understanding the way they are. If you don’t, then you need to find people who do, and use those people to educate you and to do the outreach in those communities that they have contact with.
TCR: How about recruit training? What are the first things a reform chief should tackle with recruit training so that when those recruits leave they understand the game as the chief wants it to be played?
Beck: When they get out of the academy, recruits are uninformed beyond the initial nuts and bolts of policing. They still have to learn about political savvy, understanding of the goals of the department, etc. What we’ve done to address that is bring the recruit class back after they’ve been out in the field for a year. Then they’re ready to understand the bigger policing picture. Because now they’re not worried about whether they’re going to keep their job, not afraid of the great unknown, what are the radio codes for a purse snatch. They’re just not ready for this stuff when they leave for the academy.
TCR: You’ve managed to keep yourself and your department out of the daily news cycle that was a key feature of the way most of your predecessors operated. Do you think that was effective, and useful?
Beck: I certainly have seen police chiefs and city attorneys who love being in the papers. They crave it. They solicit it. They take every opportunity to put themselves out there. I have no interest in that. I understand that I’m going to be out there plenty anyway.
Being a police chief is a serious job. We’re dealing with life and death, with people’s safety. When you talk, you should be taken seriously. Less is more. If you go out there every time somebody saves a cat out of a tree, clamoring for attention, pretty soon you’re just a loud person clamoring for attention, and people see that. You come out to the public for things that are important, that you do believe in and which you have some depth of understanding and ability to discuss.
TCR: Why do you think it served you well?
Beck: It’s added authority during the times when we do have to use the media. Because we do have to use the media. When I call the press conference I get the press, I get a lot of it. Because it’s not common. I think it gives you a bigger megaphone for the times when you need it. Again, the more you put yourself out there you also create vulnerability. The more times you talk the more opportunities to trip up and all that kind of thing.
TCR: What should future reform chiefs avoid at all costs?
Beck: Thinking the organization is more important than you are. Thinking that it is about you, or that an organization can be sacrificed for your own personal needs. That’s my bottom line. You cannot be seen as somebody who will throw employees or the organization as a whole under the bus in order to save yourself. And I’ve seen people who did that just lose all the authority. You have to avoid that at all costs.
That doesn’t mean you never take action. I’ve arrested employees, all that. But that’s not the same as abandoning somebody for political expediency. You cannot do that.
That shouldn’t stop you from calling it as it is when something has happened and doesn’t fit the standards of the organization. But you can’t shape the standards of the organization to fit unrealistic expectations.
Joe Domanick, Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College and West Coast Bureau Chief of The Crime Report, is the author of four books on American Policing and incarceration. His latest, now out in paperback, is “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing.” Joe welcomes comments from readers.