Retired Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck took the reins of the Chicago Police Department on Friday with a promise to win support from a demoralized rank and file and continue rebuilding shattered trust between residents and police.
“That’s my No. 1 goal: to bring this city together because they trust their cops. … That’s a big lift. That’s a big lift in any city — not just Chicago,” said Beck, 66, with retiring Supt. Eddie Johnson at his side.
“This department can be the change. … This department can be the glue that brings this city together and not the powder that tears it apart. … I didn’t take this to fill a resume. This is my calling.”
He said trust is paramount in policing. “That is the only tool in your tray: How much you’re trusted, how much your veracity is valued, what you can do to make the community safer.”
Chicago police officers have been working without a contract for 2 1⁄2 years. They’ve been at loggerheads with Mayor Lori Lightfoot since her days as chairwoman of the Task Force on Police Accountability, whose scathing indictment of the Chicago Police Department laid the groundwork for the U.S. Justice Department to do the same.
Against that backdrop, how does Beck win the “buy-in” from rank-and-file officers that was so integral to his success in Los Angeles? Face to face, handshake to handshake, he said.
“I come from a police family. My father was an LAPD cop. My sister was an LAPD detective. My son’s an LAPD SWAT officer. My daughter is a … bomb dog handler for LAPD. My other daughter is a sheriff’s deputy,” he said.
“I don’t just love cops. I am cops. I know that once CPD understands that, that they will understand me. Their welfare — making sure they’re safe, making sure they’re funded, making sure they have the tools and the ability to do their jobs — I want to help them to do that.”
Beck retired from the LAPD a year ago, only to get back in the only game he has ever known as a temporary replacement for Johnson.
Although Chicago has a history of turning interim department heads into permanent ones, Beck categorically ruled out becoming Johnson’s permanent replacement. That’s even if he’s a smashing success and he somehow falls in love with Chicago’s frigid winters.
“That is a question for Mrs. Beck, and the answer was ‘no.’ It’s important to the process that I be absolutely honest with Chicago and say that and stick to my word,” Beck said when asked whether he would reconsider becoming a candidate for the permanent job.
“Usually, the interim’s tenure [is] difficult because everybody knows they’re gonna be leaving. But this is an opportunity for Chicago. And it’s an opportunity for me to affect the safety of Chicago, which is the reason I took this job.”
At a City Hall news conference, Lightfoot hailed Beck as a “singular leader with the strength and vision to lay the foundation for the changes our city needs as we move forward” with the police board’s nationwide search for Johnson’s permanent replacement.
She cited “historic reductions in crime and improved clearance rates” on Beck’s watch at the LAPD. She noted he strengthened community policing there and “led the LAPD through the end of its consent decree and its transition to a constitutional policing bureau, enabling its reforms to remain in place after” a consent decree there was lifted.
She quoted from an op-ed that Beck co-wrote with civil rights lawyer Connie Rice describing his vision of policing. It’s “humane, compassionate, culturally fluent cops who have a mindset of respect, do not fear black men and serve long enough to know residents’ names, speak their languages and help improve the neighborhood.”
The Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter strongly disagrees with that view. Before Beck’s retirement there, the group called for his firing. In an open letter to Chicago, the group warned of police shootings on Beck’s watch there.
“Under Chief Beck, the Los Angeles Police Department became the most murderous police department in the nation with 45 officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths in 2017. A title they continue to proudly hold,” the group wrote this week.
“Our #FireBeck campaign included regular attendance at meetings of the Los Angeles Police Commission, a T-shirt campaign, letters to the mayor, a petition signed by almost 10,000 Angelenos, banner drops, public disruptions, and a 54-day-long encampment in front of Los Angeles City Hall — the longest black-led encampment in recent history.”
Lightfoot said she is not concerned about those same kinds of protests happening here, in part, because of the track record Beck built while head of public housing at the LAPD.
“If you know L.A. and you think about Watts and you think about South Central and the way that they were able to work together with the community — not only to make those communities safe, but a community engaged in an ongoing relationship with the police that continues to redound to the benefit of those communities — this is a guy who knows how to get something done,” the mayor said.
“There’s always critics. It goes with the job. Join the club.”
Beck noted he spent his entire career in the LAPD’s South Bureau serving a predominantly African American community. He noted that in his last year as chief of that bureau, the homicide clearance rate in the bureau with the most killings in Los Angeles was “over 80 percent,” he said.
“What I think my legacy is in that community is making it safer and bringing together residents and the police as a partnership. I stand by that. Yes, there are detractors. But this job comes with detractors. And some of those folks would be a detractor of anybody who sat in that seat,” he said.