Williams Needs a Strategy Because It’s a New Ball Game : Los Angeles: Proposition F made the police chief subject to civilian control--and thus a political football.


On the surface, the City Hall turmoil over Police Chief Willie Williams looks like the mirror image of the long and painful struggle over former Chief Daryl Gates. There are important elements in common. But this is not just a replay: It is a very different game because of the voters’ decision in June, 1992, to support Proposition F.

Passed in the wake of the turmoil that began with the Rodney King beating, Proposition F was the last and greatest victory of the liberal biracial coalition led by former Mayor Tom Bradley. Proposition F brought civilian control to the Los Angeles Police Department for the first time in more than four decades. It created an open, competitive process for selecting the chief, removed the chief’s civil service protection and limited the chief to two five-year terms. This made possible the appointment of Williams by allowing outsiders a fair chance; it also, ironically, made Williams’ new position unstable. Williams’ supporters are understandably displeased that a reform chief is in such trouble and has so few resources with which to protect himself. But the chief’s problems symbolize something remarkable: the breaking up of the monolithic power of the LAPD.

Proposition F took the LAPD out of the driver’s seat of Los Angeles politics. Backed by civil service protection, close ties to the police union, popular appeal and the threat of political intimidation of elected officials, chiefs from William Parker to Gates operated with an autonomy unlike chiefs in any other major city. During the height of the battle between Bradley and Gates, people from other cities often asked why the mayor didn’t just fire Gates. The answer was that he couldn’t.


Proposition F significantly strengthened civilian authorities. It allows the Police Commission to “remove the chief of police from office at any time.” The mayor has five days to reverse the commission’s decision. By a two-thirds vote, the City Council can restore the chief to office. And, also by a two-thirds vote, the council can initiate removal proceedings on its own. This is all constitutional, political and, despite some general provisions for legal appeals by the chief, totally unlike the civil service rules that shielded Gates.

Los Angeles is now a “normal” city, in which the office of police chief is a political football tossed among elected officials and subject to the ebb and flow of politics.

What Williams needs now, then, is a political strategy, which requires a cool assessment of the lay of the land. Mayor Richard Riordan has been pulling away from Williams for months, but by himself the mayor cannot orchestrate the popular chief’s downfall. The commission, appointed by the mayor but insisting that it has its own identity under Proposition F, also has been at odds with Williams. City Council members, no longer intimidated by the department but respectful of Williams’ popularity, are saying nothing until they read the sealed material from the Police Commission. The city attorney is counseling caution.

What’s the chief to do?

First, he should stop making things worse. “I am not a liar” is hardly the phrase the chief wants forever tied to his name, and his legalistic strategy seems based on an outdated, pre-Proposition F notion of the chief’s personnel rights. He should be thinking of expanding his already broad coalition of support rather than narrowing it with an isolated, harsh, personalized defense.

Second, Williams should not confuse silence with enmity. The silence of the council should be treated as an opportunity to build a base.

Third, he should take the Police Commission at its word. If its members are, as they say, not puppets of the mayor, then Williams should directly address their concerns. Challenge them by showing that a working relationship is possible.


And finally, Williams should go on the offensive by pointing to the difficulties of reforming the department without the support of the city’s leadership.