Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck at a news conference at LAPD headquarters. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Though the story has disappeared from the headlines, Los Angeles is still reeling from the murderous rampage of Christopher Dorner, the former police officer who killed four people and wounded three in his quest for vengeance after being fired from the force in 2009. The Los Angeles Police Department remains in full damage control mode following its wild manhunt; on March 14, the city announced it would pay $40,000 to two women who were delivering newspapers when their truck was sprayed with police bullets. Between Dorner’s rambling manifesto and the LAPD’s intemperate response, many city residents fear it is the return of an ugly LAPD from another age.
The LAPD is supposed to have cleaned up its act. It was nearly four years ago that Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck glided, noiselessly and stoically, into the post long occupied by “Super Cop” William Bratton. The man Beck was replacing, a former New York Police chief, had become widely revered for lifting the smutty LAPD from the gutters of public confidence following the Rodney King and Rampart scandals. No hoopla surrounded Beck’s appointment—and no one took him for a revolutionary— but during his tenure as LAPD Chief of Police, Beck has been lauded for transforming the LAPD and repairing its gravely tarnished reputation.
Upright, self-deprecating, and with a gentle face one can’t help but trust, Beck has strived to wear a uniform of a more honorable hue. Beck has committed to weeding out corruption and racism, increasing transparency and, most ambitiously, admitting when his police force makes a mistake.
So when a chilling surveillance video surfaced last August of a mother and nurse in her mid-30s being brutally slammed to the pavement during what should have been a routine traffic stop, Beck wasted no time trying to preserve whatever goodwill the LAPD had garnered.
Michelle Jordan was pulled over for a cellphone violation by two police officers. When she allegedly defied their commands to remain in her car, they responded by beating her, leaving her bloodied and bruised. The officers then exchanged a congratulatory fist bump. In response, Beck released a statement, vowing to “investigate this thoroughly and hold our officers accountable for their actions.” In the meantime, he demoted a captain and pulled the two officers from the field, assuaging enraged Angelenos and civil rights groups who feared that this incident was characteristic of an LAPD they believed to be long gone.
The beating of Michelle Jordan drew intense media coverage and attracted heightened scrutiny of the police department from an already skeptical public eye. Beck’s rapid response suggested the incident was an aberrant flare-up within an otherwise reformed department. His message was firm: abuses of power and the use of excessive, unwarranted force would not be tolerated within the Los Angeles Police Department
But as comforting as Beck’s words sounded, a closer look at other accusations of police brutality at the time rendered his message hollow. Just a few days prior to the Jordan incident, LAPD officers stopped a young black student named Ronald Weekley Jr. for skateboarding on the wrong side of the road. He allegedly refused to cooperate and was pinned to the ground by four officers who assaulted him with blows to the face while he was subdued and handcuffed. A bystander caught the beating on her cellphone camera, and one witness said she was screaming as she watched the officers beat him, saying, “I thought they were going to kill him.” Weekley’s attorney questions why he was detained in the first place and believes race was likely a driving factor in the officers’ use of excessive force.