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Beck facing rare criticism

Improper use of force is tolerated too often, police panel says

April 16, 2012|Joel Rubin
  • The dispute marks a rare point of contention for Beck and the commission.
The dispute marks a rare point of contention for Beck and the commission. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck is under fire from his civilian bosses, who increasingly are troubled by his reluctance to punish officers they found had killed or wounded people unjustifiably.

"If this pattern continues, it could undermine the entire discipline system and undermine the authority of the commission," said Robert Saltzman, a member of the Police Commission and associate dean at USC's law school. "It runs the risk of sending the message to officers that there will be no consequences."

The dispute marks a rare point of contention for Beck and the commission, a five-member panel that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department and has otherwise heaped praise on the chief for his performance.

Since Beck took over as chief in late 2009, the commission has ruled on about 90 incidents involving officers who fired weapons or used other deadly force. In almost all of them, Beck concluded the officers used force appropriately and urged the commission to clear them of wrongdoing. The board followed his guidance most of the time.

But in four shootings -- in which three people were killed and three others wounded by police gunfire -- the commission went against the chief's recommendations and ruled the officers' use of lethal force was inappropriate.

In each of those cases, Beck either refused to impose any punishment on the officers or gave them only a written reprimand, The Times has found. In a fifth incident, Beck agreed that the officer had been wrong to fire his gun but nonetheless chose not to punish him.

The chief's apparent unwillingness to suspend or demote officers, or to initiate the process to fire them, in these types of cases has worried a majority of the commission. Beck, they say, is ignoring their conclusions that the officers made serious, often deadly, mistakes. And they fear the lack of punishment may be sending a dangerous message to the LAPD's rank-and-file officers that the consequences for a bad shooting are minimal.

"Sometimes the chief just needs to set a tone and, through his actions, send a message about what kind of conduct is acceptable," said commission President Richard Drooyan, an attorney who served as a high-ranking official in the U.S. attorney's office. Drooyan emphasized that he does not expect the chief to impose a punishment in every case, but said, "If we find there was a very serious transgression ... we'd expect there to be some consequences."

John Mack, the board's vice president, shares the concerns of Drooyan and Saltzman. Alan Skobin, who soon will step down after several years on the board, has been a lone voice of opposition to the trio, saying he believes Beck is right to focus on retraining officers involved in questionable shootings instead of punishing them. The fifth commission member, Debra Wong Yang, said Beck's record on deadly-force cases "raise questions in my mind," but she wants to see if it continues before drawing conclusions.

Although the number of cases in question is small, the public's perception of the LAPD is strongly affected by controversial police shootings and the department's response to them. "The most important thing the department does," Drooyan said, "is that it uses force."

Beck defended his decisions, saying he imposes harsh punishments when they are appropriate but refuses to come down harshly on officers who, he believes, acted within the department's policies and tried their best during stressful, dangerous encounters. "I see things from a different perspective than they do," he said of the commissioners. "I have to be able to align my discipline with my review of the occurrence."

The friction underscores an odd, and some say dysfunctional, division of power in Los Angeles. The city's charter gives the commission the authority to decide whether a police officer's use of deadly force was justified. But decisions on how to discipline officers reside with the police chief.

In Los Angeles, the success or failure of past police chiefs to lead the large, often roiling Police Department has rested in large part on how they handled discipline.

The legacy of Daryl F. Gates, the influential, controversial leader from 1978 to 1992, was tarnished by his reputation for being too tolerant of crass, brutish behavior. By contrast, Bernard C. Parks relished his reputation as a disciplinarian but was ousted after a tumultuous term in which he lost the support of rank-and-file officers who viewed him as vindictive. When William J. Bratton succeeded Parks, he announced to officers that "the game of 'Gotcha' in this department is coming to an end" -- a line that won him considerable leeway from the rank and file.

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