NEWS ANALYSIS : A Mixed Milestone for Chief Williams : Police: Halfway into term, he is widely popular with public. But many officials, subordinates question his management.


As Police Chief Willie L. Williams marks the midpoint of his five-year term today, he closes the books on a mixed first half: Since arriving in Los Angeles, Williams has become the nation’s most famous police officer and a beloved local figure, but his immense popularity has obscured growing doubts about his management of the LAPD.

The result is a paradoxical record, one in which Williams is accused of failing to take command of the department even as his job approval ratings top those of every public figure in Los Angeles and affection pours in from unexpected quarters.

Williams’ force of personality was on display, for instance, when he appeared last spring at Cal State L.A. to discuss community-based policing. A group of protesters briefly interrupted the session to unfurl banners urging more money for education and less for police.


But when the meeting ended, the same demonstrators rolled up their banners and scurried down the auditorium benches for a chance to get their pictures taken with the chief. The charismatic Williams signed some autographs, shook some hands and answered a few questions. The same demonstrators who came to protest police left with keepsakes of their meeting with a cop who surprised them.

Venture into almost any one of the LAPD’s run-down squad rooms, however, and a very different picture of the chief emerges. In the Hollywood Division one recent afternoon, several officers gathered quietly in a corner, drinking black coffee and privately grousing about the man they publicly salute.

“Big Suit,” they call him, or, even more disparagingly: “His Corpulence.” The working conditions at the station are dismal, the cars are run-down, even pencils and paper are sometimes hard to come by. There’s talk of embarking on a more community-oriented style of policing, but these officers say they have seen little evidence of change.

Within the city’s political circles, officials admire Williams’ ability to woo the public and are intensely grateful for his success in restoring confidence in the LAPD after the Rodney G. King beating and the 1992 riots. Nevertheless, a consensus is building that Williams has been unable to take command of the department, has allowed highly touted reforms to languish and has failed to communicate a clear message to officers about where the department is headed and why.

All that has fostered an atmosphere of muted fury and quiet despair in the upper reaches of the LAPD, where command officers say they are eager to see the chief succeed but fear that he has allowed the organization to drift into near-paralysis. The rank-and-file police union and the Command Officers’ Assn. have both talked of holding no-confidence votes, although neither has acted.

Williams dismisses much of the criticism, arguing that it is too soon to judge his record. He maintains that his efforts have been stymied by opposition inside the Police Department and that some of his critics are unwilling to accept an outsider as police chief--Williams is the first non-LAPD officer in a generation and the first African American to ever command the 7,950-officer department. Still, the chief acknowledges that opinion of his performance so far is divided.


“You’ll talk with some people who will say: ‘The chief’s doing a good job, or he’s doing a so-so job,’ ” Williams said in one of several recent interviews. “Others might say, ‘When’s he going to leave?’ But as the chief of police you learn you have to live with that. You go through cycles, and it’s part of the price you pay for sitting in the chair.”


Even Williams’ fiercest critics credit him with a historic accomplishment of the first order: By dint of his personality and his perseverance, Williams has reconstructed public faith in the LAPD.

On March 3, 1991, Los Angeles police officers struck and kicked Rodney King, not realizing that their actions were being recorded by a resident of a nearby apartment complex who had just bought a video camera. The images plunged the LAPD into its most tumultuous period ever.

A year later, after three officers and their sergeant were acquitted on all but one count, the LAPD came under fire again, this time for moving too slowly as rioters tore through Los Angeles. The violence left 53 dead. It also shattered the city’s confidence in the Police Department and in Williams’ prickly predecessor, Daryl F. Gates.

Williams arrived in a still-rattled Los Angeles barely two months after the riots. The week he took office, the police contract expired. By then, polls showed that more than half of all city residents had lost faith in the LAPD.

From the start, Williams worked tirelessly to change the department’s image. Copies of his schedules for the past two years reveal a grueling pace of sessions with community representatives, meetings with some of the department’s sternest critics, meeting after meeting in auditoriums, churches, and local gathering places. There is barely a neighborhood that Williams has not courted.


The results have been profound. More than two-thirds of city residents polled by The Times last summer said they approved of the job the LAPD is doing. A majority of blacks, who historically have been more critical of the LAPD than whites have, now say they too approve of their police force.

“That’s the result of a lot of hard work,” Williams said. “None of that was easy.”

Longtime LAPD observers, including some of critics of the department, say Williams deserves enormous credit for that effort.

Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said Williams has won admirers in communities where police were previously unwelcome. Police Commission President Enrique Hernandez Jr. said he has rarely seen anyone better able to soothe an angry crowd or inspire faith in the Police Department.

Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents South-Central Los Angeles and is a member of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said Williams “has effectively helped lower the tension level between communities throughout the city and the Police Department.”

Mayor Richard Riordan said Williams’ image-building efforts on behalf of the LAPD are all a mayor could hope for.

“As a public leader,” Riordan said, “he’s fantastic.”


Since taking command, Williams has pushed for increased hiring of female officers and taken a strong rhetorical stand against sexual harassment and discrimination in the ranks. He has backed reform of the department under the blueprint drawn up by the Christopher Commission in 1991 after the King beating. He has supported Riordan’s call for more officers and has been handed money to pay for new police cars, a new academy and renovations at some of the department’s most run-down stations.


But in other areas, critics say, Williams has been a big disappointment.

Although city payments for excessive-force lawsuits are down, complaints of police brutality continue--Michael Zinzun of the Coalition Against Police Abuse says his organization still fields three to four a day, about the same as before Williams took office.

The much-ballyhooed community policing effort remains nascent and Riordan’s Police Department expansion plan already is behind schedule. Even in the area of sexual harassment and discrimination, where Williams’ rhetoric has been strong, progress has been slow. In a rare public confrontation with the chief, the Police Commission forged ahead with its own special investigative unit despite Williams’ reservations.

To be sure, there have been accomplishments: A new LAPD training facility is nearly complete; the department has stepped up its hiring; a comprehensive review of the LAPD’s basic car areas, a prerequisite to citywide community policing, is complete and new cars are being assigned; promotions, which had been frozen, are at last going forward; construction on new police stations, stalled for years, now appears on the verge of commencing.

But many observers say Williams has failed to take full advantage of the public and political support he has enjoyed since taking over. The problem, supporters and critics agree, has been the chief’s slowness to develop an effective management style.

Asked to evaluate the management skills of his police chief, Riordan started by using himself as an example. “I’m a manager who delegates,” the mayor said. “I don’t have the time or luxury to focus in on the details of matters. What I can do is come up with ideas and delegate them and supervise. That’s a style that the chief is learning. I think he’s had a little trouble learning it, but I think he’s doing well at that now.”

Behind the scenes, Riordan and his staff have pushed Williams to move faster on the expansion plan--intervention that contributed to the biggest controversy of the chief’s tenure. Responding to the criticism of his management, Williams in September demoted Assistant Chief Bernard Parks, one of the LAPD’s most senior officials.


After a messy back-room struggle in which some City Council members went to bat for Parks, the subordinate accepted the demotion but got a raise. Today, he remains a member of Williams’ command staff, relegated to the periphery of decision-making but still in a powerful position. Relations between him and Williams are frosty on a good day, department insiders say.

The Police Commission has been intensively monitoring the chief’s performance for the last year and is compiling an evaluation that sources say will take Williams to task on several fronts, faulting him for failing to assertively manage the department and for not communicating his program to underlings, among other things.

“It’s not going to be a completely positive review,” said Commissioner Gary Greenebaum, although he declined to comment on the specifics. “He knows we are not entirely happy with his management.”

According to sources in and around the Police Department, three areas in particular have raised questions about Williams’ stewardship. The department’s slow progress on certain reforms advocated by the Christopher Commission and its failure to keep pace with LAPD expansion goals top the list. In addition, LAPD morale remains low despite the resolution of the police contract.

The first area is of most concern to department critics, many of whom see the Christopher Commission reforms as the key to producing an LAPD more firmly under civilian control and one in which excessive-force cases are far less frequent. Despite Williams’ rhetorical support for the package of reforms, many remain unfulfilled. For instance, a computer system to keep track of police discipline still is not in place, there is no routine psychological testing for officers and training techniques are far from what the Police Commission would like to see.

Williams was hired to usher in such reforms, and some backers are discouraged by the lack of progress.


“Is there some personal disappointment about that?” asked Joe R. Hicks, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Council of Greater Los Angeles. “Of course there is. . . . I would like to have seen him be more of a workhorse for reform.”

Williams retorted: “I think I have been a bigger workhorse for reform than Chief Gates was in his entire 14 years.” He cites accomplishments including changes in the disciplinary system, installation of video cameras in some police cars and creation of civilian police advisory boards throughout the city.

If reform is Williams’ mandate, Police Department expansion is Riordan’s. Elected on a pledge to add 3,000 officers to the LAPD within four years, Riordan announced after being sworn in that he was counting on Williams to develop a plan to do so.

Williams at first was publicly skeptical, saying it was risky to add so many officers so fast. But he directed his staff to draft a plan, and when Riordan eventually released a scaled-down version of his promise, it bore the Police Department’s imprimatur.

Today, the plan is behind schedule, handicapped mainly by a high attrition rate that bleeds away gains in hiring. Most observers concede that even the more modest goal of 2,855 officers in five years is unlikely to be met.

In an effort to demonstrate the seriousness of the expansion goals, commission President Hernandez has posted two wall charts in the commission meeting offices, one measuring the goals, the other reflecting the reality.


“The department,” said Hernandez, “has languished a bit longer than I would have liked.”


Although Williams has detractors outside the LAPD, nowhere is the criticism of him more scathing than within the department.

The list of officers’ grievances seems endless. Most of the complaints are about working conditions and promotions. But some of the complaints are more personal and pointed: Out of the earshot of supervisors, officers routinely swap stories about the latest slights, real or imagined, that they attribute to Williams.

The anger reached a flash point in October, when Officer Charles Heim, a popular policeman from the elite Metropolitan Division, was shot and killed in Hollywood.

Heim was killed on a Friday night, and it was not until Sunday that Williams, who had been celebrating his 28th wedding anniversary with his wife in Las Vegas, appeared back in Los Angeles. Officers say the delay was unforgivable, and it sparked a mutinous outcry that began in Hollywood and quietly spread through the ranks, escaping public notice but building within the Police Department.

“The officers of Hollywood Division have lost all respect for Chief Williams,” one civilian employee wrote to the chief. “All agree that it is difficult to follow someone when that someone shows no concern for the people he commands.”

Williams calls the author of that letter “misinformed, misguided and way off base.” In fact, Williams said, he did not return sooner from his trip because the families of the slain officer and of another who was wounded in the shooting were too grief-stricken to see him immediately.


“To indicate that the chief didn’t care was outrageous,” Williams said. “I found the tone of that letter insulting.”

But fallout from the incident continues. Hernandez, who holds regular brown-bag lunches with officers, said he is often asked about Williams’ failure to return immediately after the Heim shooting.

The reaction, Hernandez added, might have been different had the chief been more successful at cultivating good will in the ranks. To the contrary, however, LAPD observers say that morale remains distressingly low.

Police commissioners, high-ranking officers and leaders of the Police Protective League say responsibility for that rests with Williams. Dennis Zine, a director of the league, said his union’s officers recognize that Williams has “made headway with the community, but they don’t feel like he’s with them. They need a chief who will go to battle for them.”

“I’m very disappointed that the morale is as low as it is,” Hernandez said. “I believe from my many discussions that there is a vacuum of a clearly understood strategic direction for the department. Until there is a clear direction, I think there will continue to be a morale problem.”

Williams concedes that morale is low but attributes most of it to the long struggle for a police contract, which was finally concluded last fall. He also blames mid-level department officials for failing to communicate to the troops the full extent of the LAPD’s accomplishments under him.


“A lot of people in the department who are managers and a lot of people who are elected officials don’t take the time to look at what we’ve accomplished,” he said, listing developments ranging from gains in the number of women on the force to the dramatic overhaul of the LAPD’s public image. “We’ve tackled more issues in the last 2 1/2 years than ever before.”

Lately, the chief has offended yet another faction within the department by supporting a ballot measure that would remove Civil Service protections for upper-echelon officers in the LAPD. That would give Williams much more flexibility in promoting and demoting his top staff, but the proposal has infuriated the Command Officers’ Assn., which was not consulted before Williams announced his position and which convened an emergency meeting last week to discuss its response.

Turnout at that meeting was huge, and the mood was surly, according to officers who attended.

Some of the more militant officers wanted to confront Williams openly, calling for an immediate vote of no-confidence in his leadership. They were talked out of that, at least for now. But even moderates among the command staff expect 1995 to bring more bitter confrontations between Williams and his inner circle.


Williams is the first LAPD chief subject to term limits enacted by voters as part of a 1992 police reform measure. His five-year term can be renewed once if the Police Commission is satisfied with his performance and the City Council concurs.

Perhaps surprisingly, in light of his unrivaled popularity outside the LAPD, there even is some private speculation that unless Williams takes firmer control of the department, he might not be reappointed when his term expires in 1997.


Police commissioners decline to speculate on Williams’ prospects for another term, saying only that they expect him to improve his performance in the coming months: “We’re all just waiting to see him work the same magic inside that he has worked with the public,” Greenebaum said.

For their part, both the mayor and the chief continue to speak as if Williams will stay on until 2002.

“If he keeps doing the job he’s doing, I’d very much like to see him continue on,” Riordan said.

And Williams, who is periodically rumored to be a candidate for various high-level law enforcement jobs in Washington or Sacramento, said he has no interest in leaving the city or the LAPD any time soon.

“I certainly would like to do another term, and at this point I expect to do another term,” he said last week. “I expect to finish my public service career here in Los Angeles, but I don’t expect that to happen for several more years.”

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