Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck stepped up to a microphone Wednesday night to address an angry crowd in a school auditorium in the city's poor, immigrant Westlake neighborhood. He had called the meeting in hopes of calming tensions and quelling the violent street protests that had erupted after one of his officers shot and killed a knife-wielding man on a nearby street.
That was, Beck wryly acknowledged later, "an unreasonable expectation."
Before he could get a word in, some in the crowd booed Beck, calling his cops killers and assassins.
The moment was a particularly harsh one for Beck, who several years ago had gone to the same streets as an up-and-coming commanding officer and had won praise from the community for pushing down drug and gang crime. Now, with the neighborhood presenting him with perhaps his thorniest challenge since becoming chief eight months ago, Beck was left with a host of questions: With dozens of officer-involved shootings each year, why had this one caused such backlash? Could more have been done to prevent the upheaval? And what needs to be done to prevent a repeat in the future?
The response to the incident, Beck said in an interview Friday, "is about so much more than just this shooting. Our challenge is to figure that out and to understand what it is really about. We're still working to peel back those layers."
He acknowledged that when he was notified in the moments after the shooting Sunday afternoon, he did not anticipate the level of vitriol that would ensue. A few dozen people each year are shot by police in Los Angeles and, in recent years, the incidents have rarely led to widespread turmoil.
This shooting, involving a man armed with a knife who had reportedly been threatening others, who ignored police orders to surrender and then advanced toward the officer, sounded to Beck like one that the community would understand.
"On the face of it, this one seemed pretty straightforward," he said. "And because of that, I didn't do things I wish now I had done. You can ask, 'How would I have known?' But that's the point, you never know."
Beck said he believes the shooting of the man, a day laborer like so many others in the neighborhood, quickly became a flashpoint that brought to the surface much larger issues facing the impoverished community of immigrants from Guatemala and other Central American countries west of downtown L.A., one of the most densely populated areas on the country.
"This community feels disconnected from the city," he said. "They feel like they don't have a voice. I think they feel a lot of pressure because of the anti-immigrant sentiment that runs through a very common conversation in America right now."
Beck noted that Westlake has a highly transitory population, with immigrants from Latin America settling there when they arrive in L.A. only to move into other parts of the city as soon as they can. The eruption of anger and hostility laid bare for Beck the fact that the LAPD has fallen short in maintaining a level of trust and close ties with an ever-evolving population, whose community leaders are often hard to find.
"When there is no identified leadership, no relationship established with the community's leaders, then the Police Department is ill-prepared or ill-equipped to handle controversial issues. There is nobody who can take our message and who can deliver their message," he said.
If an early, obvious lesson has emerged out of the last week for Beck, he said, it has been the need to identify such leaders and to begin the long, imperfect process of building relationships that both sides can trust. Beck said he had begun meeting with religious and other community figures and would continue to do so.
In many ways, this is familiar terrain for Beck, who confronted suspicion and
resentment from residents in the area when he took
over command of the Rampart station as a captain in 2002.
By the time he left, he had had success in taking back control of the neighborhood's MacArthur Park from drug dealers and prostitutes and, in general, had largely remade the department's image on the streets.
That work, he acknowledged, means little today.
"I guarantee the people from this neighborhood that we should be having discussions with now were not there when I was at Rampart," he said. "It points to the need to constantly evaluate what's going on."
Carlos Vaquerano, executive director of SALEF, a Los Angeles nonprofit that advocates for Central American immigrants, praised Beck for his work as chief but took exception to some of his reflections.
Vaquerano rejected Beck's notion that the high turnover in the community has led to a leadership void. "Groups like mine have been here for 30 years," he said.
"This is not about a lack of leadership in the community. This is about a lack of respect for this community from the city. The mayor, the chief — they need to reach out to us and show us the respect we deserve."
He agreed with Beck that many immigrants in Westlake feel neglected among the scores of distinct ethnic communities that dot the city. "We are a large number of people. We're paying taxes, whether we're documented or not. And still no one in the city leadership pays attention to us."
Beck acknowledged that work remains to be done. "Progress is not always continuous. You go forward, you go back a bit. .... We'll get through this. We'll come back with a stronger relationship because of it."