Sooner or later, every chief of the Los Angeles Police Department is tested.
For Chief Bernard C. Parks, the aftermath of the police brutality and corruption scandal in the Rampart Division was such a test. For Chief William J. Bratton, the May Day 2007 melee in MacArthur Park, and the shooting deaths of 13-year-old Devin Brown and 19-month-old Suzie Pena, provoked crises. For Chief Charlie Beck, the shooting of Manuel Jamines, a Guatemalan-born day laborer who police say was wielding a knife, is shaping up to be his first such test. Like his predecessors, Beck will be called on to find the right balance between crime-fighting and community relations, and to steer the evolving LAPD through the complicated politics of L.A.'s multilayered racial and ethnic cultures.
Beck is no newcomer to such crises. As captain of the Rampart Division, he worked closely with business owners and residents to restore confidence after the scandal. Under his leadership, MacArthur Park was reclaimed after the fracas there, and a gang-plagued drug market was transformed into a safe community resource.
That history did not help him, however, as he addressed an angry throng at John H. Liechty Middle School on Wednesday night. He was booed, denounced as the protector of a killer and as a chief of assassins. In response, Beck promised a fair and transparent investigation that would determine whether the shooting was within departmental policy. It was the right message, no doubt, but his words struck a clinical, dispassionate note to a crowd shouting for justice. To them, Beck did not seem to be addressing the fundamental question, which was not whether the shooting was justifiable according to the rules, but whether it was just.
Still, Beck's assurance is important, because many questions about the incident remain: Was Jamines threatening or attacking passersby? Did he menace police officers with a knife? In the 40 seconds Beck says they had to make a decision, could officers have made one that did not involve deadly force?
Even when those questions are answered, there will be grievances that go far beyond the shooting. One woman in Wednesday's audience tried to explain to the chief the conditions that force mass migration from Guatemala and El Salvador. Another begged Beck not to deport people arrested in the upheaval. Several residents spoke bitterly about racial profiling, and, after the session, others talked of an anti-Latino mood in California and nationwide that frightens them, and about soaring joblessness and economic desperation.
Wednesday's gathering brought little satisfaction to either side. But Beck will have other opportunities to improve the dialogue. In one of Los Angeles' most familiar rituals, officials assured the crowd that before the case was closed, there would surely be other such community meetings.