As Charlie Beck gets ready to retire, a look at LAPD chiefs who came before

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After nine years as LA’s top cop, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck has announced he’ll retire later this year. Beck will leave a 10,000 officer force with a simple motto that’s emblazoned on every patrol car: “To Protect and to Serve.”

But for decades, many Los Angeles residents believed the LAPD didn’t do either for them, said Joe Domanick, an expert on criminal justice who’s studied and written about the department for the past thirty years.

“The LAPD has been a hard-charging army of occupation in the African-American community, in the Latino community, and in communities without political clout and without much money,” Domanick said. 

That culture of enforcement started at the top with one man, William Parker, who was police chief from 1950 to 1966. Parker shaped the modern LAPD.

Parker’s defenders say that he took over a police force that was corrupt, and professionalized it by raising recruitment and training standards. As Los Angeles grew, Parker also emphasized making the officers more mobile through an increased reliance on patrol cars instead of cops walking the beat.

LAPC Chief William Parker at at police graduation ceremony in the 1950s. It was Parker who’s credited with coining the phrase, “The Thin Blue Line” to describe law enforcement as the indispensable barrier between order and disorder. Photo: Los Angeles Public Library (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

However, Parker has been criticized for championing a confront and command style of policing, where officers expected the public to comply with all of their demands. The LAPD under Parker also cultivated a image of brutality in black and Latino neighborhoods of the city.

That LAPD style of policing became a staple of American pop culture through film and television, especially one show in particular, “Dragnet” which aired in the 1950s and 60s. In every episode, the Los Angeles Police Department was depicted as an incorruptible force that was always right.

In close cooperation with the police department and its chiefs, actor and television producer Jack Webb popularized the no-nonsense approach of the LAPD in his series “Dragnet.” Webb cast himself as fictional Sgt. Joe Friday and insisted on getting small details right.  Critics say the series glorified the department and overlooked its shortcomings. Photo: Los Angeles Public Library (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But many experts believe the LAPD’s iron-fisted policing methods led to some of the city’s worst tragedies, like the Watts Riots of 1965 and more than 25 years later, the beating of black motorist Rodney King, which sparked the LA Riots of 1992. More than 50 people were killed int he violence and chaos that engulfed the city.

At that time Daryl Gates was LA’s chief of police, who had been a protege of Bill Parker, and cultivated a reputation for “us versus them” toughness. Gates brushed aside those who criticized his department for police brutality.

According to Joe Domanick, Gates was woefully unprepared to lead a police department in an increasingly diverse and complex city.

Daryl Gates’ mind was still in 1952, and it never got out in 1952,” said Domanick. “And that was the big problem. He only knew one way, the big stick, attacking critics for anything, and refusing to compromise about anything.”

Daryl Gates was LA’s police chief from 1978 to 1992. He was often a lightening rod for criticism and controversy, from saying casual drug users should be shot to acquiring a military assault vehicle for the department, one outfitted with a battering ram to knock through the walls of suspected drug houses. Photo: Los Angeles Public Library (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

After the unrest, it was clear that the LAPD had to change. In 2002, William Bratton became chief and set out to improve the culture.

A former police commissioner in Boston and New York, Bratton believed the LAPD could be both tough and caring. He aimed to build bridges to the inner-city neighborhoods while also using modern data analysis to precisely target where cops needed to be to stamp out crime.

“And I will continue to fight that battle to put resources where they are needed most,” Bratton told a graduating class of police cadets in 2008. “That’s what we do. That’s what cops do. That’s how we get crime down.” 

In 2009, Bratton left the LAPD to return to the East Coast, and Charlie Beck became chief.  Beck continued many of Bratton’s policies, including the emphasis on close ties between the department and the community.

However, the LAPD still faces challenges, including officer-involved shootings, and how best to adopt new technologies, like body cameras and drones.

As the search continues for the LAPD’s next leader, Joe Domanick said the person selected will have to constantly take the pulse of a changing city and society.

“What we need is the best possible person,” said Domanick. “A person who’s in 2018 and is not in 1998 .”

The Police Commission, the LAPD’s civilian oversight board, aims to have the next chief in place by June 27, the day Charlie Beck retires. Mayor Eric Garcetti will make the final decision among candidates presented to him.

One big issue that will confront the LAPD’s next chief is how law enforcement deals with a variety of social issues, like homelessness. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)