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Crime & Justice

LAPD Chief Beck: Skid Row dealers complained counting singles gave them carpal tunnel




LAPD Chief Charlie Beck speaks at a press conference on Monday, March 2, 2015, a day after an officer-involved shooting on L.A.'s Skid Row that left a homeless man dead.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck speaks at a press conference on Monday, March 2, 2015, a day after an officer-involved shooting on L.A.'s Skid Row that left a homeless man dead.
Rina Palta/KPCC

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"I had never seen $600,000 in $1 bills and it just about fills the back of a pick-up truck."

That was L.A.'s Chief Charlie Beck on AirTalk this morning, discussing a monthslong sting operation that netted $2 million in drug money from dealers on Skid Row, one of the most impoverished areas of the city. He added that it took the department more than 3 days to count all the cash. The operation was part of a combined city/county effort to tackle the problems facing downtown's vulnerable homeless population.

Beck also addressed how California's failure to fund addiction programs for those recently released from jail under realignment has contributed, in his view, to an uptick in petty crime and homelessness.  

"If you’re not going to get folks with addiction issues into some kind of treatment then they are going to relapse and live on the street possibly," he said. "Part of the promise of [Proposition] 47 was that we would have some ability to put them into programs to stop that from happening… and that hasn’t happened."

Beck also commented on the growing opioid overdose epidemic, LAPD's new Tesla cruisers, the mishandling of a recent jail suicide, as well as the legacy of former L.A. Police Chief Willie Williams, who died recently.

Interview highlights

On Officer Donald Thompson receiving the White House Medal of Valor for rescuing a car accident victim off-duty

He got second and third degree burns himself and insisted that he finish his shift that day. I’ve known him for many years. He’s a big teddy bear of a guy that has a huge heart.
 
We have many, many good stories about police officers doing the right thing, but unfortunately the public narrative right now, which is part media and part public narrative, doesn’t seem to include those stories. That bothers me because I know the kind of risks that my folks take everyday, and how great their hearts are and the wonderful things that they do, and so not to see that get recognized.

U.S. President Barack Obama awards Los Angeles Police Department Officer Donald Thompson with the 2013-2014 Public Safety Office Medal of Valor during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House May 16, 2016 in Washington, DC. According to the White House, 'While off duty, Officer Thompson traversed two freeway dividers and endured first- and second-degree burns while pulling an unconscious man to safety from a car moments before it became engulfed in flames.
U.S. President Barack Obama awards Los Angeles Police Department Officer Donald Thompson with the 2013-2014 Public Safety Office Medal of Valor during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House May 16, 2016 in Washington, DC. According to the White House, 'While off duty, Officer Thompson traversed two freeway dividers and endured first- and second-degree burns while pulling an unconscious man to safety from a car moments before it became engulfed in flames.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

You know we do have a tough job and our jobs are sometimes violent and sometimes things go wrong and that’s the nature of policing unfortunately. But it is important to recognize that these are heroes, these are American heroes.” 

On the recent Skid Row drug busts and that incredible seize of $600,000... in $1 bills

The county and the city are finally working together with LAHSA and many of the care providers to develop and implement a program to get people off from living on our streets, which is what we need to do as a society. It’s unconscionable that we allow folks with mental illness and drug addiction to live on our sidewalks when we could do better for them.
 
Part of the strategy was to make an impact on drug dealing. It reduces the will of people to get off the street and it exacerbates the issues of the mentally ill. So we did a year-long investigation with undercover buys, wiretaps, the whole nine yards…. If memory serves me correctly, we had 30 indictments, recovered over $2 million in cash — $600,000 of which was in $1 bills. I had never seen $600,000 in $1 bills and it just about fills the back of a pick-up truck. It took, with a money counter, three days to count.

$600,000 worth of $1 bills from an LAPD drug bust.
$600,000 worth of $1 bills from an LAPD drug bust.

You can buy a dollar’s worth of cocaine on Skid Row. It isn’t much but you can buy that. And in the wiretaps and in the undercover operations, the drug dealers would complain about having to count so many ones and they were getting carpal tunnel syndrome. They would talk about how that's the nature of the business. I talk about it not because it’s not so unusual to see the small denominations, but because it is characteristic of the victimization of people that are the most vulnerable, which to me is what Skid Row is all about. So we need as a society to do better. And part of that is having alternatives and part of that is having strict rules about behavior and encouraging people to go to those alternatives. 

On individual responsibility in combatting the opioid overdose epidemic

This one of the reasons that we do the pill disposal days. Most of this stuff comes out of our medicine cabinets. There are doctors that overprescribe and we need to do a better job of tracking them… But we also need to do as individuals, recognize that if you’re not going to use your prescription, there are ways to get rid of them. We intend to combine that with our gun buybacks and try to get some of these dangerous things out of houses that have no business being there if people don’t responsibly use them.

On the LAPD’s horrible website

We are redoing our website and we are including with that online reporting for some crimes. We are gonna do it for things like vandalism and loss reports and many of the reports that people have to do for insurance purposes. Part of my budget this year is to be able to launch that. Unfortunately it’s been a rough few years, money-wise — not only for the LAPD but for all of government, but I promise you we are not only aware of our website but are working on it.

On how the LAPD mishandled notifying family after the jail suicide of Wakiesha Williams

In this particular incident this was a suicide. Unfortunately she hung herself. She was a person that had had multiple issues with dealing with the structure that supports folks with mental issues. Unfortunately she committed suicide in our jail. That was very tragic and then to compound that, she was transported still surviving to the hospital and pronounced [dead] at the hospital. Then technically it becomes the coroner’s responsibility to notify next of kin. Unfortunately that didn’t happen as quickly as it could have and our folks didn’t take up the slack. That was something that I think could been handled better, the notification piece, but the facts of death aren’t changed by that. 

Whether realignment has contributed to homelessness and crime

They do have an effect on homeless issues and crime. Sometimes people are released back into society without proper preparation. There’s an op-ed in the Times today about the reallocation of funds from Prop 47 savings, and I think that’s what’s missing. It’s not so much that we think everybody should be locked up, because I don’t think everybody should be, but if you’re not going to get folks with addiction issues into some kind of treatment then they are going to relapse and live on the street possibly, and they are going to commit petty crimes to support their habit. Part of the promise of 47 was that we would have some ability to put them into programs to stop that from happening… and that hasn’t happened.

On how to deal with fireworks on Independence Day

Do you really want me to arrest all your neighbors? Really? I mean, really? Do you want us to drive up? That’s my point. If it was just some people “over there” that would be one thing, but unfortunately it’s a lot of people everywhere. We try to be a reasonable police department whose goal is not to lock up the entire city of Los Angeles and unfortunately societal norms kind of fall apart on 4th of July. I don’t wanna defray my responsibility because we do make citations, but this is an issue that can be hugely influenced by society, by neighbors not putting up with it and talking about it ahead of time. We will be more than happy to help lead those discussions, but that has to be a social contract between people who live near each other. 

Why the LAPD is testing the Tesla S as a new police vehicle

One, it’s a four door which is huge for us, as you know. Two, this is a sedan that has a monstrous trunk and huge boot in the front. And then most importantly it has a 17-inch screen embedded into the dash that has the ability to support all of our dispatch and all of our information systems.

But nobody should think we are gonna be buying Tesla Ss, because we are not! We didn’t buy either of these, these are on loan from Tesla. The reason to have them is to see how we can interface our technology with these cars. The ability to quickly access information, the ability to get data into police cars or to get data from police cars back into the station, you know that is the Holy Grail of technology and policing. These cars are the platform we are most looking for. Ford has done a tremendous job too. Our newest Explorers have in-dash screens... Think of the last police car you looked in and that big old laptop screwed to the dash, hanging between two seats. That’s not the way that car was designed to be and its dangerous in an accident. It’s a bad solution. We are looking for cars that offer a better solution.

On the legacy of Willie Williams

He became chief at a very, very, very tough time. I don’t think people really appreciate how daunting his task was. It was 1992. The crime rate was four times what it is today, including the homicide rate, the rape rate, the robbery rate. Every measure that you can think of was four times as great as today. They had almost 1,200 murders that year, so he had that. He was the first African-American chief, and the first outside chief in anybody’s memory so it was a very very difficult time and I believe he did the best he could. History judges us all in hindsight, but I think that everybody has to appreciate how difficult his task was.

Guest:

Charlie Beck, Chief, Los Angeles Police Department. He tweets from @LAPDChiefBeck