In 1974, Charlie Beck -- the man poised to become the next chief of the Los Angeles Police Department -- was 21 years old, unemployed, unfulfilled and adrift.
He had spent his teenage years training as a professional dirt motorbike racer but reluctantly walked away after failing to compete at the sport's elite levels. For the first time in his life, he gave serious consideration to the profession his father, a high-ranking officer in the LAPD, had chosen.
Beck took a job assisting detectives with their office work and, intrigued by what he saw, joined the force as a part-time reserve officer. His first days with a badge on the streets of the department's Rampart area were something approaching an epiphany.
"I knew it was what I wanted to do. I was sure of it," he said. "I wasn't going to be the richest guy in the neighborhood with this job, but I knew I would be the guy that had a job that was important, that made a difference. And you add with that the fact that it was challenging. I loved the thrill of it, I loved the adrenaline. I loved the hunt, I loved the capture. I loved the whole thing."
The raw enthusiasm of a young cop would grow into something far more complicated in the years that followed. As the city devolved into a period of chaos and violence amid a drug epidemic and soaring crime, the LAPD descended along with it. Trained to follow orders and think of themselves as an occupying force, cops fell back on an aggressive style of policing that sometimes slipped into the realm of abuse.
It was a strategy, Beck would come to realize, that held no hope.
Ups and downs
After a few years as a reserve officer, Beck returned to the LAPD's training academy and emerged as a full-fledged cop in 1977. It was a time of flux, as Chief Ed Davis stepped down and Daryl F. Gates, a hard-line LAPD veteran, took over. Davis had flirted with the idea that police should build close ties with the communities they serve, but under Gates the department shifted back to an entrenched, paramilitary mentality.
As a still-green patrol officer, Beck took assignments in Rampart, South L.A., Hollywood and the Westside.
By the mid-1980s, with the crack cocaine epidemic in full swing and the city suffering a homicide rate three times what it is today, Beck had been promoted and was supervising cops in narcotics and anti-gang units in the thick of the chaos in South L.A.
With far too small a force to adequately police the city, heavy-handed, one-dimensional strategies prevailed, leading often to claims of excessive force and racism.
It was a time filled with troubling scenes. Beck recalled responding to a house his gang officers had raided to find children handcuffed and splayed on the street.
"They weren't evil people . . . they were doing what they were taught," he said of the officers. "There was no room for independent thought."
And there were deployments such as "Operation Hammer," when "we brought in all the gang units in the city and all the extra patrol units and just tried to get as many arrests as possible. It was untargeted, it didn't matter what it was. It was a declaration of war. It was supposed to be a declaration of war on gangs, but people saw it as a declaration of war on the community."
The 'dark days'
In recent interviews and speeches, Beck has shied away from talking in detail about specific incidents he witnessed or took part in, but he has not tried to shun responsibility for being a part of the force during what he refers to as the "dark days."
"I saw it not working, but I didn't have the maturity yet as a person or professionally to recognize it and to understand why," he said in a recent interview.
The 1992 riots following the verdict in the Rodney King beating were a turning point for Beck, solidifying his feeling that the LAPD's harsh policing methods were not only failing to make streets safer, but also helping set the stage for the eruption.
"I started trying to look at the job differently. I figured there had to be a way to be an effective police officer without alienating the people you were policing."
It would be a decade, however, before Beck found himself in a position to try out some of the ideas that had been taking shape in his head.
Soon after being hired as chief in 2002, William J. Bratton identified Beck, by then a captain in the department's rough Central Division, as someone who he believed had potential.
He sent Beck to run the Rampart Division, which was still recovering from a corruption scandal, and tasked him with one of the high-profile assignments aimed at winning back some of the public's confidence.
MacArthur Park, which over the years had become an open-air bazaar of drug dealing, prostitution and violence, had come to symbolize the LAPD's continued inability to maintain order, and Bratton wanted to take it back.