As the Los Angeles Police Commission meets today to begin interviews with candidates vying to become LAPD's next chief, four department insiders who were early favorites remain leading contenders, according to city, community and law enforcement leaders monitoring the confidential selection process.
The top candidates, most officials say, are Assistant Chiefs Jim McDonnell, Earl Paysinger and Sharon Papa and Deputy Chief Charlie Beck.
Beck, a 32-year veteran of the force who has established a strong reputation among the LAPD rank and file and civic leaders alike for being both a tough cop and progressive thinker on crime, is widely perceived to have gained a slight advantage over the others. Papa, meanwhile, is viewed as more of a long shot in light of some missteps made in recent months by parts of the department under her command, according to several sources.
LAPD watchers cautioned, however, that the competition is far from decided and that the candidates' performance in the interviews before the commission and later with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has the final say, will play a significant role. One dark horse mentioned by some as having a chance if she bowls over the commission in her interview is Deputy Chief Sandy Jo MacArthur, who heads the LAPD's training group.
For weeks now, those jockeying to replace outgoing Chief William J. Bratton have had to walk a delicate line, pursuing their interests in the job without appearing to be campaigning for it. Unlike political races where public endorsements, cash contributions and votes are eagerly sought, the unofficial campaign for chief demands two things: discretion and the mayor's support.
On its face, the rules of engagement appear simple: Identify the politicians, LAPD officials, high-powered attorneys, civic leaders, Hollywood moguls and others whose counsel Villaraigosa might seek in making his decision. Call them up and ask for help. In reality, it is far more complicated.
"It is a very, very weird process," said one prominent LAPD official, who, like everyone else interviewed for this article, asked that his name not be used because the selection process is confidential. "There are the people you absolutely must call and pay homage to -- the elected officials and whatnot. There are the people who could do you some harm and, so, who you need to neutralize. And then there are the people who can actually put in a good word for you with the mayor. You need to navigate all of these waters, and you need to do it skillfully."
In a letter to the commission sent earlier in the month, Villaraigosa said he had convened an advisory group chaired by Warren Christopher, who headed an oversight panel in 1991 that recommended sweeping reforms for the LAPD after the Rodney G. King beating, to offer "thoughtful advice" on candidates and the process for evaluating them. Joining Christopher will be civil rights attorney Connie Rice; retired judge Lourdes Baird; Stewart Kwoh, president of the Asian American Justice Center; and attorney Ron Olson. On behalf of the group's members, Christopher declined to comment.
But Villaraigosa has been talking to and hearing from far more than these five. In an interview, he declined to offer specifics but said he'll "be seeking advice from a broad cross section of individuals and leaders. I'll be accepting every call and making my own calls to solicit input."
A candidate's failure to reach out to the right people can be costly. One city official who has close ties to the LAPD and met with the mayor to discuss the selection voiced dismay that only two candidates had contacted her. "I am surprised more have not reached out," she said. "It would have been good if they had."
Acting swiftly to lock up support is also important. In a particularly awkward encounter, an influential attorney was eagerly approached by a candidate and had to tell him he was too late because she had already committed her support to one of his competitors.
The issues of race and gender are also delicate ones. In past chief selections, when divisions within the department and ill will between the LAPD and the city ran deeper, race and gender politics played a major role.
This time around, however, they are on the periphery, and candidates risk hurting their chances if they overplay the issues, several people said. As a Latino mayor who recently selected a black fire chief and has made other similar high-profile appointments, Villaraigosa can more easily dismiss such pressures, they said.
"If he picks someone who doesn't get the job done, the hit he's going to take politically will be far worse than any bump he might get from picking a minority or woman," one observer said.