*This interview is the sixth installment of Ask the Chief, a BPR interview series with police chiefs from around the country.
Michel Moore is the Chief of Police for the Los Angeles Police Department. When he became head of LAPD in 2018, Chief Moore took charge of the third largest police force in the country, employing more than 10,000 people. A 40-year veteran on the force, Chief Moore has served in a wide array of capacities while working his way up the ranks. He has led LAPD’s counterterrorism efforts, the city jail, and has served as Chair of the LAPD’s Use of Force Review Board.
Sam Trachtenberg and John Fullerton: What are you most proud of from the last three years you have been chief?
Michel Moore: I’m most proud of how our department has faced turmoil and criticism during one of the most contention times in decades. We believe that we’re a leading department in police reforms across America, but we also acknowledge that we have more work to do. Former President Obama’s 21st Century Report on Policing cited LAPD’s community involvement programs as a model for future policing. We are embracing new changes with open arms.
I think in the past, chiefs and departments as a whole would immediately go into defensive mode as soon as they faced any criticism. While I’ve been criticized for not coming out and defending us as a department more vigorously, I believe that this is a time when we need some humility from the law enforcement community—and I’m very proud of that. I have to be willing to acknowledge where we fall short and work on bringing people together rather than continuing the alienation and vilification of those who don’t agree with us.
ST & JF: What are some issues you are looking to address in the immediate future?
MM: The number one area that we’re working on is building trust. It is our job as police to prove that we are worthy of the trust and responsibility that our community places on us. I’m hopeful that as we move forward, our attitude of finding that middle aisle and reaching out continually to even our staunchest critics—agreeing to disagree, but working to find common values, like respect. Let’s try to not just see but also hear each other. Rather than having an answer already formulated in my head as you’re asking a question, let’s actually listen to the question, reflect upon it, and listen to each other’s experiences.
ST & JF: That’s exactly what we’re trying to do with these conversations—modeling a healthy but meaningful way for people at home to discuss this sensitive issue of policing. These things are hard to talk about, but we need to shed some light on them still. So speaking frankly: When I look at your police uniform, I see the same uniform of the LAPD officers who beat up Rodney King. Given that, does policing need an overhaul? Do we need something more like the Bobby’s in England that sends a message more about public safety and less intimidation?
MM: I think we judge police differently than we judge other public safety workers. For example, you’ve got people who are in the medical profession who are engaged in malpractice and who make mistakes every single day, but we are not defunding medicine. We don’t vilify the entire medical profession.
Rodney King was arrested 30 years ago—prior to either one of you being born—but nonetheless his arrest is still front and center in people’s minds. But how representative is that of this department? I wear the uniform of an agency of 150 years that has had terrible instances of injustice, but has also made a safer city, has seen the sacrifice of 235 of its members in the service of the city, and has saved countless lives and done tremendous work and made a difference.
There has been a lot said about all these demands for police reform. And yet, where are those demands on all the other aspects of society? There is an expectation that police reform is going to somehow fix all the other disparities, which is just not going to work. If we don’t change the systems that create the violence in our streets and your only answer is pulling police from those neighborhoods, then all you have is anarchy.
ST & JF: LAPD is famous for its motto: “Protect and serve.” The serve part is really interesting to me because, and I think we can agree on this, everyone isn’t treated equally in this society, be it because of race, gender, social class, et cetera. Taken together, does policing play a role in maintaining or reinforcing these inequalities?
MM: Policing can, and certainly has throughout history, been used by the government to enforce those biases, to enforce the Uncle Tom laws, to enforce segregation. I recognize that policing can and has been used in this way, and it would be quite a jump to say that now we have suddenly stopped reinforcing these biases. To make that jump is to ignore the history that we’ve had. But having said that, it doesn’t mean that every action that we are taking are on behalf of the government is biased, prejudicial, or reinforcing discrimination. And that’s the difficult part. There’s bias everywhere. People can look at the tax law and argue that it’s discriminatory. People look at our educational system or our healthcare system and say that they’re discriminatory.
Historically we would arrest young women who were probably sex trafficked for prostitution. Today, we recognize that they are survivors that we should be rescuing. That’s how policing has changed, and that’s how we need to continue to change. Twenty years ago, we’d say, “That’s a problem too deep for policing to fix; we just have to make the arrests. The criminal justice system can sort it out.” We can’t think like that anymore. I think today that we’re more reflective about our impact being discriminatory.
Now, having said that, it’s hard to get a stain out. This is going to take time because even if we were perfect in every interaction today, we still carry the stains of the past. You referenced the incident with Rodney King, which occurred in March 1992. That’s a stain that is going to take at least a generation to heal from.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.