By Fernando J. Guerra
Los Angeles' political history is more intricately entwined with that of its police department than any other American city, which will make Mayor Eric Garcetti's decision on who replaces retiring LAPD Chief Charlie Beck's one of his most consequential.
As social scientists committed to non-partisan analysis of life as it's currently lived in our city, we at Loyola Marymount's Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles hope the mayor and his appointed police commissioners will work toward a decision informed not only by the usual City Hall interests, but also by the wealth of empirical data available concerning residents' views on LAPD and its policies.
There is no need to rehash here the long and, generally, unhappy interplay of LA's enmeshed histories of politics and policing. They long were marked on the one hand by civic corruption and cowardice and on the other by the department's political manipulations, indifference to constitutional rights and an abusive relationship with minority Angelenos, particularly African Americans, that sparked two of the most deadly and destructive urban riots in U.S. history. Suffice to say that, over recent decades, the two forces that have altered Los Angeles most fundamentally for the better have been demographic change toward vibrant diversity and real police reform.
Since the city's acceptance of a 2002 federal consent decree requiring a radical departmental overhaul, the LAPD has been led by William Bratton and Beck, a pair of genuine "reform chiefs" committed to constitutional policing. Both also are believers in community policing based on the late James Q. Wilson's "broken windows" theory, which advocates using officers proactively to curtail street-level disorder and incivility as presumed precursors of more serious offenses. As a result nearly all serious crimes have fallen to rates unseen since the Great Depression, and LAPD's relations with the communities it serves are better than they've been in historic memory.
Selecting a new chief who will build on that progress will challenge Garcetti and his appointed police commissioners to take the measure not only of the candidates, but also of the collective civic sentiments about the quality and effectiveness of today's LAPD. Based on public opinion research conducted by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, there's a great deal be said about the latter, some of which many may find surprising.
Slightly more than seven out of every 10 Angelenos feel LAPD currently is doing an "excellent" or "good" job. An overwhelming 85% of the city's residents rate their police services as fair or better, and 42% describe them as "good." Similarly, 82% approve of the department's "conduct and professionalism."
Despite those historically low crime rates, however, half of residents characterize the city's "crime and safety" situation as only "fair," while only 17% describe it as "good." African Americans and Latinos are most likely to perceive crime and safety as "poor"--by 41% and 47% margins, respectively--while Asians and whites are most inclined to see the situation as" good"--24% and 23%, respectively. Women are most likely to see the crime and safety situation as "poor"--43%--though fully 47% rate it as "fair." By a 14% margin, men are most inclined to view the situation as "good."
Paradoxically, 78% of residents say they would recommend their neighborhood as safe to "someone interested in moving in." Fully seven out of 10 say they would recommend the city as a whole as "safe" to somebody contemplating moving here.
When it comes to public perceptions of the two reform chiefs, Bratton's performance was approved by 74% of residents, while Beck's performance was perceived favorably by 59%. Asians were the most likely residents to approve of Bratton's performance--96%--while blacks were most inclined to disapprove at 41% who either "somewhat" or "strongly" took a negative view of his performance. Bratton's approval rating was equally high among women and men with more than seven out of 10 residents of both genders approving the way he conducted himself. Beck's performance as chief is strongly approved by both whites--65%--and Latinos--58%. However, more than six out of 10 African American residents either "somewhat" or "strongly" disapprove of the way he's done his job.
Negative perceptions in the black community may mirror recent criticism of Beck's handling of police shootings by Black Lives Matter, a group that another of our surveys found is supported by fully 68% of the city's residents. Similarly, some of Bratton's higher rating may be attributable to his skills as a communicator, which are the best of any big city chief in recent memory; Beck, by contrast, is a more understated "cop's cop," who "bleeds blue" and has deep familial roots in the department.
Garcetti will be approaching his decision on Beck's replacement from a relatively strong political position of his own, since 56% of L.A.'s residents assign his performance on crime and public safety an A or B grade, and his rating in this area has climbed by 12 percentage points over the past two years.
The mayor and his commissioners will have to weigh the obvious questions: Would an outsider or LAPD veteran be best positioned to build on the reformers' progress? While our surveys do not find any strong sentiment for a chief of any particular ethnicity, they do suggest that someone with strong communication skills and a willingness to build greater trust among African Americans would be a good candidate. From an historic standpoint, there never has been a Latino chief nor a woman, and first's tend to build good will and political capital.
Fernando J. Guerra directs the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. All of the data cited in this piece and the methodology used to collect and analyze it can be found at the center's website.