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Willie Williams, L.A.'s first black police chief, dies

LAPD Chief Willie Williams fields questions from students at Monroe High School in 1995.

LAPD Chief Willie Williams fields questions from students at Monroe High School in 1995.

(Los Angeles Times)

Willie Williams, who became Los Angeles’ first African American police chief in the aftermath of the 1992 riots, has died. He was 72.

His death was confirmed Wednesday by the Los Angeles Police Department.

Williams stepped into the top job at the LAPD at a sensitive time, as the department reeled from criticism over its handling of the riots and Los Angeles struggled to mend racial divides. He replaced Daryl Gates, who had long been criticized for running a department that mistreated minority groups, particularly blacks, in Los Angeles.

Williams helped usher in a series of reforms in the wake of the Rodney J. King beating case. Under him, the department grew by 2,000 officers and the LAPD adopted more “community policing” strategies that were designed to be less confrontational than the methods Gates used. He won credit for restoring confidence to the department.

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But Williams was also criticized for what some saw as his weak administrative skills.

His competence and honesty came under fire. Outside analysts criticized the department’s management and suggested that reform was being stymied by the lack of strong leadership at the top.

In 1995, Williams was accused of accepting free accommodations from a Las Vegas casino. He denied the allegation, but the commission then uncovered receipts showing that Williams and his family had accepted “comped” rooms on at least five occasions. Williams distinguished between a “comped” room and a “free” room, but the commission concluded that he had lied and reprimanded him -- a move that later was overturned by the City Council.

His bid for a second term as chief was rejected by Police Commission in 1997.

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He began his career as a park guard before rising to Philadelphia police commissioner.

Reached at her home in Fayetteville, Georgia, a woman identifying herself as Williams’ wife said Williams passed away Tuesday night after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer. She declined to comment further.

Twitter: @lacrimes

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