The most hopeful signs that we may be slowly inching toward a post-racial America are coming from the unlikeliest of places: big-city police departments. Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has just selected Charles Beck as his new police chief out of a field of three finalists, all white males. Those finalists were presented to Villaraigosa, a Latino, by the Los Angeles Police Commission, which is headed by a reformed race and police baiter, former Urban League president John Mack. There was almost no moaning in the media or among activists over the lack of “diversity” in the final slate of candidates for LAPD chief; instead, coverage of the selection process has focused almost exclusively on the candidates’ actual qualifications. Two years ago, Chicago mayor Richard Daley chose Jody Weis, an FBI special agent in charge from Philadelphia, to replace Police Superintendent Philip Cline, who had presided over a significant crime drop in Chicago but whose tenure was marred by several officer scandals. Both Cline and Weis are white, and while a few of Chicago’s black politicians, agitators, and columnists denounced Daley’s choice on racial grounds, their manufactured controversy quickly died down. Edward Flynn, an insightful and hard-charging police leader from Massachusetts, became Milwaukee’s chief in 2007 to widespread acclaim, even though the white Flynn’s two predecessors were a black male and a female chief.
The race-muted selection process for the next LAPD chief isn’t just good news for American race relations; it’s also good news for public safety—not just in LA but across the country. Beck’s final two rivals, Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell and Deputy Chief Michel Moore, enjoy superb reputations within the department; they would have undoubtedly made excellent chiefs. Perhaps if I had had the privilege of knowing McDonnell and Moore as I have Beck, I would have been rooting as hard for them. But my exposure to Beck over the years—interviewing him about the LAPD’s highly charged political and racial history, accompanying him on tours through the gang-ridden Rampart district and downtown Los Angeles—led me to hope that he would be chosen as Chief William Bratton’s successor.
The motorcycle-riding Beck, son of an LAPD deputy chief and father of two LAPD officers, represents the best of Los Angeles policing: laid-back, accessible to the press and the public, unflappable, tough, and open to change. Chief Bratton tapped Beck to run the Rampart police division after a corruption scandal there led to an unjustified federal consent decree over the entire department. Beck corrected the localized supervisory failures that had allowed the Rampart anti-gang unit to run amok, but he never lost sight of the fact that the biggest threat to the poor Latino district came not from a handful of rogue cops but from the gangs that still terrorized the streets. He understood the difficult balance that police commanders need to strike between restricting officers’ discretion to avoid potential abuse of power and giving them sufficient discretion to fight crime. “If you screw ’em down too tight, you get nothing,” he said. “You gotta realize what kind of horse you’re riding.”
Even before Bratton became police chief in 2003, officially bringing the philosophy of broken-windows policing to the LAPD, Beck had launched an initiative to clean up the Skid Row homeless encampments, the most concentrated 50 blocks of depravity and squalor in the U.S. “I was abhorred by it, it drove me nuts,” he said. “You need collective will to say: ‘This standard of conduct is not allowed any longer.’” What Beck began on Skid Row, Captain Andrew Smith magnificently concluded starting in 2006, with the assistance of 50 additional officers whom Bratton finally persuaded the City Council and mayor to fund.
As head of the South Bureau, which encompasses LA’s most violent neighborhoods, Beck has thrived on Bratton’s Compstat regime of data-driven, accountable policing. And it’s the promise of maintaining that regime in LA that constitutes such good tidings for the entire country. The two cities where Bratton’s Compstat revolution has lasted the longest and penetrated the deepest into departmental culture—New York and Los Angeles—have had the most pronounced crime drops in the country. Yet the criminology profession and the media continue to ignore the implications of those twin crime successes: that police can drive crime down through rigorous, information-saturated tactics. Such a discovery remains anathema to the reigning academic and press ideology of victimhood, which holds that crime is a natural response to racism and inequality and can only be eradicated by wealth redistribution and welfare programs. Beck faces enormous manpower and budgetary challenges in keeping Chief Bratton’s crime successes in LA going forward. Yet I’m confident that he will overcome those challenges and continue to drive crime lower. When he does so, maybe the media and the criminology profession will finally recognize the truth: that policing is the best urban reclamation strategy that government can devise. The fact that race consciousness appears to be losing its hold on police-chief selection suggests that we’re moving ever closer to a universal recognition of that truth.