The people of Los Angeles owe Police Chief Willie L. Williams an enormous debt of gratitude. Yet, you'd never know it by listening to the small, insulated cadre of downtown opinion-makers who have characterized Williams as a hapless administrator and uninspired leader unworthy of a second, five-year term in office.
Much of the criticism directed at Williams comes from his natural enemies in the Police Protective League, within the old-guard hierarchy of the Los Angeles Police Department and from their conservative allies in the mayor's office and City Hall. From the start of Williams' tenure in 1992, they have abhorred the idea of an overweight, East Coast, African American reform chief leading what had been the groundbreaking and preeminent model of paramilitary policing throughout the Southwest.
Increasingly, however, complaints about Williams have come from his philosophical allies--from past and present liberal police commissioners, police officers, politicians and journalists who have declared themselves deeply frustrated with Williams. Their dissatisfaction is not entirely groundless.
Progressive elements within the department's rank and file, men and women who understand the compelling need of the LAPD to transform itself, have often felt adrift. The daily, concrete, by-the-numbers directions they've longed for, and the unambiguous programs and leadership they've craved, have come about only fitfully.
The keepers of the city's ethics, moreover, have pronounced themselves appalled by revelations of Williams accepting free hotel rooms in Las Vegas, then allegedly lying about it to the Police Commission.
And reform-minded police commissioners and politicians have continued to complain of their problems in getting Williams to work with them in an open, trusting manner as they struggle toward their long-range goal of a cohesive transformation of the LAPD.
Judging by the polls, however, the public has a far different opinion of Williams. They seem to have been looking at the forest, not the trees, to have longer memories and to have intuitively grasped what Williams' detractors have not: After decades of agonizing traumas revolving around the LAPD, Williams has, at last, given the city a normal police department. He could have presented Los Angeles with no greater gift.
For no longer is the LAPD an agency swaggeringly proclaiming itself the best in the world; or demanding that it be at the heart of our civic life, the hub around which everything else in city government revolves.
No longer is it necessary for journalists, politicians and civilian police commissioners to check their rear-view mirrors after writing a critical article or publicly criticizing the chief or his department. Perhaps it never was, but an atmosphere was created by the chiefs proceeding Williams that caused large numbers of reporters and public officials to believe that was indeed the case. Nor are there any rampant rumors, as Daryl F. Gates used to encourage, of secret dossiers being kept on critics. Nor are the people or the leaders of South Central or Pico Union automatically assuming that every officer-involved shooting will routinely be whitewashed--as was the situation before Williams became chief. Nor is there a belief that a flagrant disregard for the civil liberties of black and brown people will be tolerated under Williams, as it was by chiefs who passionately believed that that was the way you were supposed to police.
Gates, who admired George S. Patton and compared himself to Douglas MacArthur, saw himself as a combat general and the LAPD as an elite, hard-charging street army. Williams knows he heads a civilian agency, and that truly effective law enforcement is never measured by arrest numbers alone.
Ed Davis once famously said that he didn't want to be mayor of Los Angeles, because, as chief of police, he already had more power than the mayor. Often, Gates unabashedly expressed contempt for Mayor Tom Bradley. Williams, on the other hand, understands his position as a department head and public servant within the city's political fabric.
But memories are short. It seems that with Williams' announcement of his intention to seek another five years, the three decades before he arrived have been forgotten. But they need to be remembered. Leaders of Los Angeles should recall the Watts riots, the SLA shootout, the LAPD's widespread spying on critics and on lawful organizations, the killings of Eulia Love and of scores of unarmed civilians, the 15 chokehold victims dead within one seven-year period, the raid on Dalton Avenue, the indiscriminate gang sweeps in South Central, the beating of Rodney G. King and the riots of 1992. Then, they should note that under Williams' leadership, we have had no comparable scandals and controversies.
Much has been made, on the other hand, of Williams going to Las Vegas and allegedly lying to the Police Commission about his trips. Well, he shouldn't have lied. If he did, that fact should be taken into consideration when the Police Commission decides whether or not to rehire him. But only as part of a bigger picture of service. And only when remembering what we have not seen from Williams: the pattern of dishonesty--the ethos of defending rogue cops accused of brutality and the unwarranted use of deadly force--that was a reflex action under previous chiefs.
We also hear that morale under Williams is down. But the chief did not create the crisis in morale. That began when the video of the King beating was beamed around the world, and gained momentum during the '92 riots, when officers drove aimlessly around--six to a patrol car--while parts of the city were going up in flames and the top LAPD command staff was nowhere to be found. The LAPD is now an organization with a true riot-control plan, one in which every officer has been trained under Williams.
Unquestionably, implementation of the Christopher Commission reforms has been slow, and Williams may not have cleanly sliced the old LAPD off at the root. But he has also not replaced it with a different gung-ho version. Instead, the old department is withering slowly, but inexorably, on the vine. While its emerging replacement might not be a model for the nation, it is a department with which average people are feeling far more comfortable.
Williams has turned out to be more a transitional figure than either the ardent reformer or the cops' cop who many would have liked. But the LAPD is a tradition-bound, unionized bureaucracy, an oil tanker of a ship that will take a generation to turn around. In the end, the department will be transformed not because Williams zealously changed it, but because he has permitted it to change.
As the hard-nosed, white old guard slowly heads off to retirement in Canyon Country, they have been replaced by minorities and women brought into the department since 1980 by a consent decree forced on the city by the federal government. Many of these officers are now in middle management. It is they who will continue the department's transformation. Meantime, crime is down, complaints of police use of excessive force are down and, crucially, the LAPD is no longer warring with vast segments of the city's population. That alone merits five more years for Williams.*