From the Archives: Philadelphia’s top cop offers a reformist style
The first time he saw the Rodney G. King beating videotape last March, Willie Williams stared, horrified and fascinated, at the figures flickering before him.
As one among millions of television witnesses to 81 seconds of the confrontation between King and Los Angeles police, Williams was bewildered. “What in the world could anybody have done to precipitate that type of beating?” he later wondered. “They could all have jumped on the guy, held him down, something.”
As Philadelphia’s police commissioner, Willie L. Williams saw lessons in the violent encounter. Within two weeks, he had ordered his commanders to use copies of the tape in officer training sessions.
It was a quintessential move for Williams, an earnest police reformer who preaches the gospel of community harmony and officer accountability. In Philadelphia, where cops once swaggered in black leather jackets and tough-guy Commissioner Frank Rizzo attended soirees with a nightstick in his tuxedo, Williams has brought change to a 6,300-officer force that has bucked even the most glacial progress.
The only outside candidate among six vying to replace Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, Williams does not expect the LAPD to blithely accept reforms, either. Despite scoring highest among the finalists and openly advocating improvements recommended by the Christopher Commission, Williams recognizes that, as an outsider and a black, he would face daunting odds running the Police Department.
“I’d clearly have to build bridges to a lot of people,” said Williams, who has been Philadelphia’s police commissioner, the equivalent of Los Angeles’ chief, for 3 1/2 years. He plunged into the competition for the LAPD job, he said, because “it is a great opportunity to undertake some major changes.”
A career officer who started 30 years ago as a park guard, Williams, 48, is a 14-hour-a-day workaholic who projects an imposing yet informal command presence to rank-and-file officers. A hulking, easygoing figure in a crisply laundered uniform, Williams has long courted success by immersing himself in the eye-glazing details of his job.
His near-memorization of the major findings of the Christopher Commission impressed members of the Los Angeles police chief search panel last month. But within his own department, some law-and-order advocates say Williams looks better on paper than he is in action.
Williams’ greatest successes have come in Philadelphia’s black neighborhoods, where police had long had a reputation for brutality and corruption. These days, under Williams’ stewardship, officers staff storefront “mini-stations,” gaining rapport with residents who once shunned them.
“The thing that’s most impressive about him is he’s a listener,” said Jack Green, a Temple University public policy expert. “What big-city departments need these days is someone who can take in all the information, see how it affects the important players in the community and then act. That’s Willie Williams.”
Popular with front-line officers for his openness and informal style, Williams has nevertheless alienated a generation of older cops who mourn for the law-and-order reign of Rizzo, the bombastic former chief and mayor who died of a heart attack last year during a last-hurrah political campaign.
Insiders complain that Williams is too quick to discipline officers at the first hint of violence or taint. Since 1988, he has dismissed 19 officers for brutality and used warnings and transfers to curb misconduct among another 100 officers who were the subjects of citizen complaints about excessive force.
His 1988 appointment as commissioner also still rankles critics who claim he had little management experience. He has wrestled in court with the city’s powerful police union. And the force remains bitterly divided along racial lines.
“This guy is not qualified any way you want to look at him--education, experience or performance,” said one former high-ranking Philadelphia police official who asked not to be named. “His experience was minimal at the command level and now he wants to take over a Police Department in crisis? Well, good luck to Los Angeles.”
Responds Williams: “Sometimes you have to step on the eggshells that are going to crack and cause you some grief before you can make the repairs that are necessary.”
The notion that Philadelphia’s police commissioner might export reform was once unthinkable. The force was investigated for systemic brutality by the U.S. Justice Department in the 1970s, then rocked by narcotics scandals in the mid-1980s.
Just as the LAPD was tarnished by the King beating, the Philadelphia department was embarrassed in May, 1985, by its mishandling of a confrontation with MOVE, a nihilistic cult group. Police dropped an incendiary bomb on the group’s hide-out, setting off an inferno that killed 11 MOVE members and charred 61 row houses. Williams, a captain at the time, had no role in the incident.
Much as in the King incident, televised images of the Philadelphia police action shocked viewers throughout the country and led to the creation of a blue-ribbon panel similar to the Christopher Commission.
The panel recommended sweeping changes. Former Mayor Wilson W. Goode responded by appointing an outsider, former U.S. Treasury Agent Kevin Tucker, as the city’s first black commissioner. But Tucker, a New Jersey resident, lasted only 2 1/2 years, disdained by many officers for forcing change by fiat and shunned by politicians for never fully committing to Philadelphia or the job.
He left behind a 195-page critique of the department that Williams now uses as his mandate for change. It is thick with references to “community policing,” the grass-roots law enforcement style embraced last year by the Christopher Commission and being implemented by the LAPD.
Williams is part of the community he polices, living with his wife, Evelina, in a three-bedroom northwest Philadelphia row house overlooking a graveyard. Married 23 years, they have raised three children--a twin daughter and son, now 25, and a 22-year-old son. The couple appear to live frugally on Williams’ policeman’s salary, which approaches $85,000 a year.
His only visible extravagances have been a now-sold Lincoln and two dice-sized gold pinky rings. His wife bought him golf clubs last Christmas, he said, but “I still haven’t used them yet.” Much of his spare time these days is devoted to work. Since 1988, Williams estimates, he has attended more than 300 public meetings.
“If we had a problem, he was always available,” said Portia Reason, who met frequently with Williams when he was a captain assigned to her crime-pocked North Philadelphia neighborhood in 1983.
The most visible symbols of Williams’ tenure in Philadelphia are his department’s mini-stations. Through a unique partnership between police and residents, 27 stations have sprouted up in buildings donated by landlords, furnished by neighbors and staffed by two-officer teams.
“This is where police work is going in the 1990s,” said Williams, who is president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. “You’ve got to talk to the community about the number of officers you have, the dollars you have to spend. Then you can decide: What are your priorities?”
The city’s oldest station is on Mt. Vernon Street, north of downtown, amid crumbling and shuttered apartments in an area inhabited by poor Latino families and crack addicts. Crime still thrives there, but Officer Tom Bray said his stint has helped him distinguish “the good guys from the bad guys, which I wouldn’t if I was still patrolling inside my car.” He credits Williams with sticking with the approach even after angry drug dealers pitched a hand grenade into the station in August, 1990, blowing up furniture and part of a wall.
When Williams stopped by the mini-station recently for an inspection, he hailed Bray by his first name--a courtesy typical of Williams’ common touch. “It wasn’t, ‘Officer’ or ‘Hey, you,’ ” Bray said. “People in the lower ranks remember those things.”
In Williams’ first two full years as commissioner, violent crime set records in Philadelphia. In one year, from 1988 to 1989, murders jumped from 371 to 476. Last year, the increases moderated, particularly in drug war-related homicides--partly, Williams and federal officials say, because of a new partnership between police and federal agents in targeting violent narcotics traffickers.
Even as the crime rate slackens, traditionalists within the department complain that Williams devotes more attention to community relations than to crime-fighting. They argue that mini-stations and an administration swelled with more supervisors than when Rizzo ran his 8,300-officer force have become a drain on manpower.
“Public relations has its place,” said John J. Shaw, a police sergeant who heads the Fraternal Order of Police union. “There’s a point where all the P.R. in the world won’t cut the crime rate. It’s a cop in a vehicle responding to radio calls.”
Though a product of Rizzo’s department, Williams was never much of a subscriber to its hard-nosed tactics. When the department’s philosophy began to change in the late 1970s after Rizzo left office, Williams began climbing in the ranks, trading on his knack for winning over community leaders and his ability to score high on promotional exams.
“He’s a real whiz at preparation,” said retired Deputy Police Chief Harvey Crudup, a close friend who studied and competed with Williams three decades ago when they worked as park guards and were mocked by beat cops as “squirrel chasers.”
The son of a meat-cutter, Williams joined the city’s Fairmount Park force soon after graduating from high school. When park guards were assimilated into the police force in 1972, Williams kept his sergeant’s rank.
Early on, Williams faced overt racial bias. Black officers, he recalls, were rarely allowed to work together as partners in coveted prison wagon and desk posts--limiting their “general knowledge of the job” and their chance for promotions.
When he complained, Williams said he was taken aside by the only black commander in the park guards at the time and told: “If I can make captain, so can you. Learn to take the tests and you can manage people instead of being managed.”
Chastened, he joined a group of black officers who studied obsessively for city tests. He pored over police procedural textbooks, using flash cards to memorize legal codes. At dinner, his wife prepped him with questions.
Although he flunked his first several promotional tests, Williams’ preparation and determination paid off. On his way up, he worked as a narcotics detective, a field supervisor and a captain in charge of a crime-pocked North Philadelphia police district, where he ingratiated himself with residents who found his open-door style refreshing.
Williams’ rise accelerated in the late 1980s during Tucker’s tenure. He was appointed inspector, commanding the city’s north police division, then the department’s civil affairs unit and its training bureau. Despite having only a two-year degree, earned in night classes, in business administration, Williams was sent off on training seminars--including a three-week management course at Harvard University--and, after three months as deputy commissioner, he was given the top job by Goode in June, 1988.
Some insiders say Williams’ inexperience showed during the professional football strike of October, 1987, when police lost control of a demonstration by 3,000 union members at Veterans Stadium. When some protesters scuffled with fans, Philadelphia Eagles team officials accused police of poor planning. Williams, who headed the police contingent that day, defends his performance, saying, “our preparations were 90% right. . . . We did just about as much as we could do.”
One faction Williams has been unable to placate is the city’s police union. The Fraternal Order of Police has repeatedly sued him for disciplining officers. Their most bitter legal sparring came in January, 1991, when Williams tried to promote 14 officers--half of them minorities--to top ranks without Civil Service tests by calling them “temporary” appointments. It was Williams’ way of bringing in his own team above other senior officers in line for promotions.
The police union sued, claiming that the promotions violated Civil Service regulations. Local judges agreed, ordering Williams to administer tests to everyone eligible for promotion. Initially, Williams balked, but he relented after one judge threatened him with jail. In the end, only nine of the 14 officers passed the tests.
The feud became so divisive that at one point, according to Williams, two white officers that he promoted found notes at their homes asking their wives “how it feels to be sleeping with nigger lovers.” And when several officers who had sued were transferred to the force’s Night Command, department wags began referring to the unit as “White Command.”
“It was horrendous,” Williams said. “Some of these officers were ostracized by their neighbors. It really threw a chasm into the command structure.”
Newer recruits seem more sensitized to racial issues. But much of the rest of the department remains polarized--in a city that is 40% black, the force is 71% white. “The department reflects the city’s tensions,” said Mike Mallowe, a writer on city affairs for Philadelphia magazine. “For all of Williams’ good intentions, he hasn’t been able to do much about it.”
He has had more success combatting brutality and corruption, at times firing officers named in allegations. But the union has hamstrung those efforts, suing Williams to rehire officers dismissed during a narcotics corruption scandal three years ago.
Williams’ name emerged briefly--and cryptically--during one case. In a December, 1989, federal trial for a narcotics unit accused of skimming money from drug dealers, a former detective called as a character witness testified that during a 1976 drug raid, he saw “improprieties” by his sergeant. The witness, William Clarke, said he alerted higher-ups, who ordered the sergeant transferred to another unit.
Clarke did not name the sergeant. But Richard Jumper, one of the police defendants, asked Clarke in open court: “Was that sergeant that you had transferred, Mr. Clarke, is he now the police commissioner?” After prosecution objections, Jumper withdrew his query.
Jumper could not be contacted. Clarke, now a northeast Philadelphia bar owner, had little to say when reached by The Times. “What the transcript says is true,” he said of his testimony. “The name was not relevant to the trial and I was only there to be a factual witness for a former supervisor. I was not there to cause any grief and I don’t want to cause any now.”
Federal investigators never pursued the allegation, said Assistant U.S. Atty. John P. Pucci, the prosecutor in the case, because “it was simply a means of trying to move the focus from (the defendants) to others.” Said another prosecutor: “They were blowing smoke.”
Williams said there is no basis to question his integrity. Although he admits once working with Clarke, he said that the mention of his name “was an attempt to sidetrack the jury.”
Although Williams clearly still relishes his job, the minor tempests have taken their toll, friends say. His muscular frame has filled out. His voice tenses as he recounts his battles. Some department observers suggest that the city’s new mayor, Edward Rendell, may not want Williams to stay on. Though he reappointed Williams last year, Rendell did not rehire Williams’ two top deputies, a signal to some that the mayor wanted his own team.
Describing his relations with Rendell as “fine,” Williams said he has sought the LAPD post because he feels qualified to carry out reforms after living “through that here in Philadelphia.” He is not worried about his outsider’s stigma--even though it crippled his predecessor, Tucker.
If he wins the job, Williams said, he expects his schedule--and his task--will be as disruptive and wearying as his life is in Philadelphia.
“It will require 12-, 13-, 14-hour workdays,” he said. “There’ll be some wins and some losses. But it can be done.”
Profile: Willie L. Williams
Williams, Philadelphia’s top police official, is the only outside candidate in contention to succeed Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates. He scored highest among six finalists during a recent selection process.
Born: Oct. 1, 1943, in Philadelphia.
Education: Graduated Overbrook High School, 1960; two-year associate degree from Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, 1982; attending St. Joseph’s University.
Career highlights: Joined Fairmount Park Guards, 1964; promoted to Philadelphia police detective, 1972; captain, 1984; inspector, 1986; deputy commissioner, March, 1988; commissioner, June, 1988.
Personal: Married to the former Evelina Edwards, 23 years; three grown children. Reads detective novels and coaches youth sports teams. President of National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
Goals: Outspoken proponent of community policing concept and toughened internal stance against police brutality. Portrays himself as an “agent of change.”
FOR THE RECORD: An article printed March 22 on Philadelphia Police Commissioner Willie L. Williams that appeared incorrectly reported that Kevin Tucker, his predecessor, was that city’s first black commissioner. Williams is Philadelphia’s first black commissioner.
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