As chief of detectives for the Los Angeles Police Department, Charlie Beck has seen some of the worst gang violence that the nation's second-largest city has to offer.
If Beck has learned one thing in his 31 years as a cop, it is to look beyond the immediate killing to what often follows close behind: someone looking for revenge.
Beck knows all too well that one act of vengeance begets another, and soon a bloody cycle of violence is under way. It is crucial for police to cut the problem at the root, he said.
"That has to start at the scene, even before the body goes," he said. "Because that retaliation is coming."
Beck shared that message Friday with a group of North Charleston police investigators and commanders looking for ways to shut down retribution-based violence within their own borders. Beck toured some of North Charleston's toughest areas, where gun violence is a regular occurrence. Then, during a three-hour seminar at City Hall, he worked with the group to devise strategies for calming tensions in the community when violence occurs.
Police Chief Jon Zumalt invited Beck to town at the recommendation of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, which is working with North Charleston to stem the city's tide of tit-for-tat bloodshed. Zumalt is convinced back-and-forth gunplay between neighborhood groups played an integral role in the 55 killings his city experienced over the past two years.
Zumalt said he is concerned that North Charleston's offenders are getting more violent, more intent on taking lives.
Though the number aggravated assaults dropped dramatically over the past decade while the city's population grew, the number of violent encounters ending in death shot up, he said.
"We experienced an abrupt and dramatic change in violence patterns," Zumalt said. "This is a terrible, difficult trend and one we have to find a solution for."
With an estimated 3.7 million people, hundreds of nationalities and a myriad of entrenched street gangs, Los Angeles dwarfs North Charleston in land mass, population and crime. Still, similarities exist between South Carolina's third-largest city and various Los Angeles neighborhoods, and some of the same lessons and strategies for tackling crime might apply here, Beck said.
Los Angeles police have made it a priority to send detectives and senior captains to all shootings where a potential for retaliation exists. While detectives hunt for the culprits, commanders concentrate on stopping another shooting from occurring in response. That's why it's so important that police know their communities — the players, the beefs, the tides and tensions that drive life there, Beck said.
"Stopping the first killing is really hard, but stopping the second is easier because now you have a reference point," he said.
Los Angeles police saturate the neighborhoods of both the victims and potential suspects to discourage retaliation and show the community that the city takes the violence seriously, Beck said. People need to be assured that police are working the case hard and have every intention of sending some to jail for the crime. "Part of this is selling your abilities," he said.
Los Angeles police also call in outside groups to work with crowds at homicide scenes and help calm the swelling rage, Beck said. The groups might include clergy or even former gangsters and ex-convicts who have turned their lives around. They have street credibility and can help ease tensions in ways police cannot, he said.
"They have to start working the scene immediately," Beck said. "There should be a lot of people out there talking about how this violence needs to stop."
Building community trust is key, Beck said. Los Angeles police saw a 50 percent drop in homicides in the long-troubled, economically depressed Watts neighborhood after applying these strategies and holding weekly meetings with community members to discuss violence, tensions and other issues, Beck said.
"It has paid huge dividends," he said. "And by doing this, it starts to cause a shift in community values in terms of what is acceptable."
In his brief tour of North Charleston's hot spots, Beck noted a troubling number of vacant houses, insufficient street lighting and other factors that can nurture crime. But he also was impressed by the police department's high clearance rate for solving homicides and by how well officers know the people and communities they serve.
"You can't do anything about (the violence) unless you have an ability to understand where the retaliation is going to hit, and it appears to me that is something of a very strong point here," he said.