It’s difficult to overstate Charlie Beck’s impact on the Los Angeles Police Department. An officer for more than 40 years, he was sworn in as chief in 2009 and helped pivot the LAPD away from the heavy-handed paramilitary tactics that defined the department in the ’90s, moving toward policies of community guardianship. He retired in 2018. And while policing has defined his professional life, riding has held a firm grip on his personal life since he was 12. Long before he picked up a badge, he considered a life as a pro racer. Now at 66, he competes in amateur motocross events.
I love retirement. A lot of guys don’t, but I never had a weekend I didn’t like. I was really busy for a long time. I’m busy now, but in different ways.
Is there anything about riding that made you a better officer?
You stumbled into my recruitment speech. I’ve always said that being an officer or a firefighter is a great alternative for guys who can’t make it as pro racers. Like me, I wasn’t good enough to go pro. You use a lot of the same skills. You understand risk versus reward. As a racer, you have to learn to manage your adrenaline or you won’t be racing very long. The same is true of an officer. You also understand that your actions have consequences, that whether it’s the laws of physics or the laws of the state, if you break them, you’re going to be in trouble.
You did a decent amount of patrolling on a motorcycle, right?
I did some. First off-road, keeping guys out of places they shouldn’t be, but I didn’t like that very much. It was back when you rode your own bike, and I had a CR500. Nobody was getting away from me because the bike was fast and I was pretty good back then, but it wasn’t great for other types of riding.
Later, I did some riding as part of some undercover work. Surveillance, mostly, but a bike isn’t good at surveillance. You stand out more than you blend in, and most of surveillance is sitting around. A car’s better for sitting around.
When I became chief, I went through the LAPD motor school.
I had to do it in pieces because of my schedule, but I completed it. I mostly patrolled on holidays with a pocket full of gift cards. I’d pull people over for whatever they were doing and hand them a warning and a gift card. I don’t think I ever wrote a ticket. It was pretty fun. I’ve always said 80 percent of policing happens when you hit the red lights. You’re trying to correct someone’s actions, to get them to pay attention. Getting pulled over is traumatic, even for me. The ticket itself only does so much.
What was the wildest thing you saw while patrolling on a bike?
It’s funny, guys have different names for it, “black and white fever” or whatever. People will see you, then do something totally different than what they normally would. Roll a stop sign or whatever. They also make plenty of room for you on the highway.
Is there a future where we stop seeing officers on motorcycles?
Certainly not in L.A. because it’s a huge traffic issue here. Motor cops can get through traffic much better than cars, especially in gridlock. Unfortunately, the reality is that there’s always gridlock. I think you’re going to see more departments going to smaller bikes. A lot of the smaller departments in L.A. are using things like the BMW 700 and things like that instead of the big road bikes. I think you’ll see electric bikes. The LAPD has a fleet of about 450 motorcycles, and well over 300 of them are big bikes, BMW 1200s or Harleys. But we’re 400 square miles with huge expanses of freeway. In a tighter environment, a smaller bike’s better, for sure.