NEWS ANALYSIS : New City Role a Sharp Departure for Violante


It was just a few months ago that William C. Violante issued a blunt public warning to Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams: "We'll be the first to yell the loudest if we find that he's being controlled and manipulated by the political forces at City Hall," promised Violante, who was then the president of the union representing the city's police officers.

What a difference those few months have made. Today, Violante, 55, has a new title--deputy mayor for public safety--along with a freshly painted office in City Hall and a mandate from the new mayor.

Since being appointed to his new post two weeks ago, Violante has shelved the combativeness that characterized his union tenure and adopted a tone that befits his new responsibilities. "Mayor Riordan supports a team concept," Violante said in an interview last week. "I am part of a team."

Once a critic of the city's power structure, Violante now is embedded in it. His appointment has sparked a chorus of conflicting reactions. Supporters see him as a tough, relentless administrator who will fight for issues he believes in and bolster the abysmal morale of Los Angeles Police Department officers. Skeptics call him short-tempered and abrasive, and they cite the union's opposition to a popular police reform proposal as evidence that Violante may try to undermine efforts to build a new LAPD.

The criticism has not appeared to ruffle Richard Riordan.

"I am very, very happy to have Bill Violante on my team," Riordan said. "He is somebody who's going to be very, very helpful because he has the support of the police that are on the streets. And that's the kind of support we're going to need to make the reforms that we need to make in this city."

Although Riordan and Violante are both part of the same Administration today, interviews with Violante's longtime associates and a review of his writings as union chief reveal that he has spent the past several years advancing a set of priorities far different from Riordan's.

Some of their differences are so pronounced that one pundit joked that Violante had a "Lani Guinier problem," a reference to President Clinton's nominee to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Clinton withdrew Guinier's nomination after reading her academic writings and deciding that he could no longer support her.

Riordan has pledged his support for police reform. Violante has as well, but he and the Police Protective League opposed a central plank of that reform, Charter Amendment F, which Violante called "a sham on the public."

Riordan made hiring 3,000 new police officers the top priority of his Administration. Violante, although strongly supportive of adding to the LAPD ranks, three months ago sent out a strongly worded and controversial letter in which he offered to help other police departments recruit officers away from the department--a move seen by some as an anti-management gambit in contract talks. Violante has also stressed the need to "ensure that new police officers are not paid for off the backs of current police officers."

Riordan suggested using more reserve officers in an effort to bolster the number of police officers on the streets. Violante and the league have always been wary of relying on reserves, fearing that they could take away jobs from full-fledged officers.

Most intriguing is why Riordan, who has taken pains to express support for Police Chief Williams--perhaps the city's most popular public figure--turned to a man who may be the chief's fiercest public critic. Violante, at least while heading the union, attacked Williams relentlessly, accusing the chief of stalling on reform proposals and of building his public image at the expense of rank-and-file police officers.

Violante has referred to some of Williams' efforts as "all foam and no beer," and has written open letters criticizing the chief's work. In one of those recent letters, Violante accused Williams of pretending to implement reforms in order to "build political capital."

"When you claim that those recommendations are being implemented, that assertion may help you curry favor with politicians, but it kills any chance of real LAPD reform," Violante wrote.

Williams, said to have been shocked by Violante's appointment, has declined to lash back. Instead, he has repeatedly said that Riordan has the right to make any appointments he chooses and expressed the hope that Violante will change his tune now that he has a new job. "We'll just have to wait and see," Williams said.

Riordan acknowledges past differences with his new deputy, but he downplays their significance.

"I've known Bill Violante for a long time," Riordan said. "In a sense, he has been somebody who hasn't always agreed with me. But I've always respected him."

Although Violante's job has not been defined precisely in public, his duties will include working with Williams, who runs the LAPD day to day, and the civilian police commissioners, who set the department's policy. Violante may also represent the mayor in the council chambers on matters involving law enforcement funding.

Until two weeks ago, Violante had spent his entire professional life as a police officer. He joined the LAPD in 1970 after serving four years in the U.S. Army and coming home to Southern California, where he was born and raised.

"I've always had a fondness for police officers," Violante said. "I thought it would be a way to serve the community."

Violante patrolled the streets of Los Angeles for nine years. He worked in vice, accident investigation and a number of other fields, moving his way up the ranks to senior lead officer in a program that was a precursor to the community-based policing concept now widely touted as a model for the LAPD.

In 1979, after a political crisis rocked the Los Angeles Police Protective League, Violante shifted gears, running for and winning a seat on the league's board of directors. The previous directors had endorsed Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.'s gubernatorial candidacy, a move that outraged the mostly conservative rank and file and forced the board's ouster.

Violante, according to associates, learned an important labor lesson from the experience of his predecessors: Stay close to the membership.

That edict has sometimes been difficult to follow. When Charter Amendment F, the police reform measure, appeared on the June, 1992, ballot, union leaders had to make a hard call. They despised then-Chief Daryl F. Gates, who so disliked the union that he refused to speak to its leaders for years. But Gates was well-liked by the rank and file, and the charter amendment was designed in part to force him from office.

The league came out against the measure, isolating itself from the political mainstream and throwing itself in with Gates. It was an uncomfortable alliance, according to union sources, but it reflected Violante's commitment to keeping the union leadership in step with its members.

During Violante's tenure on the board, the league has grown steadily in stature and professionalism. Once a marginal force in Los Angeles, it now wields considerable political clout, and Violante has emerged as a blunt, steadfast spokesman for police issues.

He is a fierce debater, unafraid to confront his rivals in public. At a recent U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearing, for instance, he accused Williams of dragging his feet on police reform. The audience was sympathetic to Williams, but Violante never flinched, charging that Williams and the LAPD brass had shown a "tremendous lack of response."

Privately, some associates say Violante can be difficult. Although he is equipped with a gregarious sense of humor, those who know him say Violante also is short-tempered, sometimes erupting in anger when he is frustrated.

Critics say he also can be shortsighted. During recent contract talks, Violante publicly threatened a job action, warning that although he opposed a police strike, some members supported the idea. Critics called that foolhardy. The LAPD's public stature already is so low that a job action might destroy the union's credibility with many residents, they said.

"Bill is a decent guy," said one political observer who knows him. "But he's no diplomat."

Violante's rise to prominence at the union was not always smooth. In fact, the mid-1980s were a troubled time for him.

While his work environment was charged with the league's ongoing battle with Gates, Violante's home life was tense as well. He separated from his wife of 18 years, Margaret Marie Violante, in 1986. What followed was an unusually bitter divorce that featured a host of charges by each of them--including an allegation that Violante once beat up his 17-year-old daughter.

In a written response filed with the court after his wife leveled that charge, Bill Violante emphatically denied it: "I did not beat (my daughter) up."

The divorce grew so bitter that at one point, the judge imposed a restraining order that prevented the couple from having any contact with each other.

Divorce proceedings often feature charges that later turn out not to be true, but Riordan's staff refused to let Violante explain the allegations. Riordan's press secretary, Annette Castro, said she would not let Violante answer any questions about his divorce or the charges exchanged between him and his then-wife.

"It has nothing to do with his work," said Castro, who monitored Violante's interview with The Times. "It has nothing to do with being deputy mayor. . . . We hired Bill Violante based on his professional life. His personal life--it would be a violation of his privacy to have him answer questions about it."

The alliance between Violante and Riordan--between a labor leader and a multimillionaire businessman--is as unlikely as it is politically convenient. The league endorsed Riordan enthusiastically during his campaign for mayor, a move that took no one by surprise given the relatively conservative league membership and its long distaste for the other candidate, then-City Councilman Michael Woo.

But more important than the endorsement itself was the league's decision to stick with Riordan even after it was disclosed that the candidate had been arrested years earlier on three alcohol-related charges: twice for drunk driving and once for interfering with a police officer. Had the union pulled its endorsement, it could have badly disrupted Riordan's campaign during the final stretch; instead, the league stuck with its candidate, who went on to victory.

Some saw Violante's appointment as a pay-back for the union's decision to stick with Riordan, but others said that there are a host of powerful political reasons for making Violante deputy mayor. Chief among those is the possibility that Violante might smooth the waters with rank-and-file police officers, who have worked without a contract for more than a year and are growing increasingly frustrated.

Already there are signs that Violante's appointment is having some effect on LAPD morale.

One officer, Susan Yocum, last week described Violante as "a man with a realistic vision of the problems in the Police Department." In a column published by The Times and hailed by many of her colleagues, Yocum wrote that Violante's appointment might finally bring better priorities to City Hall.

"Maybe street officers will stop being the scapegoats for all of LAPD's ills," Yocum wrote. "Maybe, just maybe, the department will rise out of a deep abyss."

For Violante, the tests of leadership will come quickly. Riordan has given Chief Williams 60 days to come up with a plan for adding thousands of officers to the ranks of the LAPD, and Violante will work with the chief to develop that plan.

That process will almost certainly test Violante's loyalties. Riordan's chief campaign pledge was to add police officers, and Violante's principal mission during his time at the union was to argue for officers already on board. If it comes to a choice between giving current officers a raise or hiring new ones, all eyes will be on Violante.

And the hard choices will not stop there. Riordan and Violante both are under pressure to demonstrate their commitment to Police Department reform, but though Violante strongly supports some proposals, others--such as those to beef up disciplinary procedures--are opposed by many rank-and-file officers, those whom Violante represented with vigor just two weeks ago.

"We're going to try to do what's best for the police officers and for the city as a whole," said Violante. "That's the bottom line, to make Los Angeles safer."

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