LAPD Chief Charlie Beck's policies involving illegal immigrants… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)
A decade ago, Charlie Beck watched as William J. Bratton arrived in Los Angeles and began rebuilding a department deeply tarnished by the Rodney King beating, riots and corruption scandals. Bratton made many changes as chief, but Beck was particularly taken by his aggressive effort to rebuild the LAPD's broken relationship with the African American community, which over and over Bratton said was a cornerstone to his success.
Beck carried the lesson with him when he replaced Bratton three years ago as chief of the nation's second-largest police force. With nearly half of the city's population Hispanic and the federal government's aggressive efforts to identify and deport illegal immigrants sowing fear in immigrant communities, Beck believed that his success or failure as chief rested heavily on whether he could replicate Bratton's success — but this time with Latinos.
His actions have made him a lightning rod for criticism, even from some of his own police officers. But they have also established Beck as a forceful national voice for a more restrained approach to illegal immigration, a high-profile counterpoint to hard-liners like Sheriff Joseph Arpaio in Arizona's Maricopa County.
His first move made it easier for unlicensed drivers — a group dominated by illegal immigrants — to avoid having their cars impounded. He then spoke in favor of issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Last month, he took that stance a large step further, announcing that suspected illegal immigrants arrested for low-level crimes would no longer be turned over to federal authorities for deportation.
In an interview, Beck said he was driven to act on some level by his sense that he can and should help level the playing field for illegal immigrants, whom he said have suffered unfairly from crude federal immigration laws. But Beck said those personal views were not as important as his more practical belief that extending an olive branch to immigrants in Los Angeles was vital to the LAPD's crime-fighting efforts.
"It's not so much that I am a dove on immigration," he said. "It's that I'm a realist. I recognize that this is the population that I police. If I can take steps — legal steps — to make them a better population to police then I will…. I do have sympathy for their plight, but my actions are not based mainly on that. It makes absolute law enforcement sense. Any one of these things I've done is directly tied to public safety."
Beck's shift has won wide support at City Hall and among immigration advocates. But he has also endured loud criticism that he is going soft on criminals and is out of line by picking and choosing the people who should be subject to the nation's immigration laws.
Some of the harshest attacks came on the issue of relaxing car impound rules. The L.A. police union accused Beck of overstepping his legal authority and filed suit to block the plan.
Others warned that the chief would have "blood on his hands" because the rules would allow unlicensed drivers back on the roads more quickly, where they could cause accidents.
His other initiatives have received similar blowback: The chief is encouraging lawbreakers by easing pressure on illegal immigrants and needlessly politicizing the Police Department in the process.
Beck strongly denies any political motives. In fact, he says his position as chief gives him a certain cover to address these hot-button issues outside the political arena.
"I will never run for elected office — I have a unique opportunity to do things that are right. I don't have to base my decision on what job I want next, because I don't want any job next. And I have a boss, the mayor, who didn't tell me to do this but certainly is supportive," he said.
The LAPD has long been a leader in dealing with illegal immigrants. It was Chief Daryl Gates, whose tenure was marked by tense relations with minority communities, who took the first major step.
Many of Beck's ideas and decisions regarding the city's roughly 400,000 illegal immigrants are rooted in Special Order 40 — a landmark policy put in place more than three decades ago that forbids LAPD officers from stopping a person for the sole purpose of determining his or her immigration status. Officials at the time believed that the new rule was needed to reassure illegal immigrants that they could report crimes and provide information about suspects without fear of being questioned about their immigration status.
Beck is one of only a few officers still active who joined the department before Special Order 40 was implemented. He recalled being a rookie and seeing his training officer take Latinos into custody simply because he believed they might be in the country illegally and then hand them over to federal immigration officials.