A Chief Needs Character, Strength, Vigor

Ed Davis was Los Angeles police chief from 1969 to 1978 and a state senator from 1980 to 1992

In 1992, a committee under the leadership of Warren Christopher conducted hearings on how to improve the performance of the Los Angeles Police Department, then under fire and the city polarized in the aftermath of the Rodney King incident. As a former LAPD chief, I was called to testify before the Christopher Commission.

My career commenced at an even more contentious time, when the LAPD was struggling to regain public confidence after emerging from a period of corruption and violence. During the 1930s, a number of LAPD officials were guilty of egregious offenses, including murder. The appointment of a special prosecutor triggered the flight to Mexico of at least one miscreant in blue and the conviction of others.

The cleansing of the LAPD brought with it several fundamental changes in the department. Tom Bradley, later mayor of Los Angeles, and I were privileged to graduate from the first “reform” class at the academy in 1940.

This marked the beginning of half a century during which the LAPD enjoyed a reputation, celebrated by the long running programs “Dragnet” and “Adam 12,” as an organization that was virtually incorruptible. The LAPD was considered by many to be the finest and most ethical police agency in the country.


Two of the changes that helped ensure this reputation were the process by which the chief was selected and, to a degree unparalleled in large communities, the chief’s independence from City Hall. This independence, however, ultimately created a principality within the city.

When the Christopher Commission asked my thoughts on the selection and tenure of police chiefs, I recommended that the position be changed to allow a five-year contract with renewal for another five years. That makes the chief both independent and accountable. Halfway through, performance can be measured and an assessment made.

Some chiefs leave too soon and some stay too long. No private corporation would think of allowing chief executive officers to stay as long as they wish. Few remain as long as 10 years. Chiefs who stay too long look upon the department as their personal fiefdom and resist all external change. This happened twice in this century. These instances give credence to Henry Kissinger’s profound observation that when a person enters a significant office, he is full of bright ideas for the future; he has a full tank. But as that person stays and battles, his tank runs dry. A police chief should not be permitted to run on an empty tank.

After five years, Chief Willie Williams has inscribed a record that will determine his future. As Omar Khayyam put it in “The Rubaiyat,” “The moving finger having writ moves on and all the piety nor wit can strike out a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.”


Whenever Williams’ term ends, the Police Commission and Personnel Department must determine the criteria for selecting a new chief. Some factors that should be considered: whether the chief should be selected from within the LAPD or through a nationwide search, what educational background should be required, what vision does the candidate have for the LAPD, whether the candidate possesses the vigor to pursue positive goals and good moral character and strength to ensure that others adhere to ethical standards, whether the candidate has demonstrated a high capability to provide inspirational leadership.

It has been reported that during the last selection process for a new chief, candidates were asked to write an essay saying what they intended to do if selected. Such a take-home exercise is not an appropriate forum for evaluating a candidate’s decisiveness or response to stress.

The Personnel Department must return to the process it formerly used: locking all candidates in a room and having them write essays on each subject on which they were questioned. The papers should be rated by distinguished members of the community without their knowing who wrote them. In my examination for police chief, the chief justice of the California Supreme Court was one panelist who rated my paper on criminal evidence.

What is important is to provide the LAPD with effective leadership so that it may maintain public confidence and enhance its grip on a longstanding reputation that is the envy of agencies across the nation.