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'There are so many things I want to learn and so many things that I want to do that I don't have the time for.'

May 07, 1987|RICHARD HOLGUIN | Times Staff Writer

Police Chief William Martin has taken the Downey Police Department into the heavens, worked to keep its midriff from bulging and presided over its legal lows.

But after more than nine years as Downey's top cop, the chief, who is quick to smile and wears an open-neck shirt beneath his sport coat, plans to retire to Lake Tahoe on July 22.

"In Tahoe you can actually see the stars," Martin said in a recent interview. "There are so many things I want to learn and so many things that I want to do that I don't have the time for."

Martin, 52, has been a stargazer--an innovator who will leave the city with some imaginative programs. His employees describe him as a man with a big heart who is not afraid to take a chance.

"I like new things," Martin said.

Martin tried something new in 1983, when he decided to put an officer in the sky to patrol the city of more than 83,000.

The department bought an ultralight aircraft--little more than a motorized hang glider--for $5,000 and began pursuing crooks from aloft. Downey was one of the first departments in the nation to use an ultralight for police work. It now flies a third-generation craft, a single-seater made of fiberglass with a synthetic sailcloth skin.

The plane has been used for surveillance in more than 150 felony and misdemeanor arrests in four years of flying, police said.

"Many people thought at the beginning, and I guess some still think now, that it's a toy, but it's not," Martin said. "It's a very practical police tool."

Another innovative program got its start in 1984 when Martin decided to whip his 107-member force into shape by rewarding fit officers with as many as 10 extra days off a year. The program has yielded mixed results, according to department statistics. At the end of last year, only 14 officers qualified in good or excellent shape. Nevertheless, Martin says the program is a success.

"The No. 1 asset of this Police Department is its employees," he said. "So when we do something for them it really makes me feel good."

Martin still defends officers, who in 1979 arrested and strip-searched a 14-year-old girl, which resulted in a $245,000 court judgment against the city. Kimberly Renee Paul, now a 22-year-old Army private at Ft. Hood, Tex., had been arrested at gunpoint by plainclothes detectives who were investigating a holdup of a local record store. She was released a short time later.

A federal court jury decided that city police violated Paul's civil rights, a decision upheld last month by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Paul's attorney, Yvonne M. Renfrew, said Paul was arrested without probable cause because she is black. Martin still maintains that the courts erred and that his officers made a difficult but proper on-the-spot police call.

"Twenty minutes after we had her we knew that she hadn't done anything wrong and we were feeling bad about it then," Martin said.

Martin leaves a city where the most serious law enforcement problem over the years has been residential burglaries, and not much has changed. For example, there were just two homicides in 1985, the same number as in 1980, according to department statistics. Numbers for last year are not available.

"Downey's still a very nice place to live and not presented with any real major crimes," the chief said.

Martin does not plan to idle away his retirement years. He and his wife, Katy, and their 12-year-old son, John, will move to Lake Tahoe and finish a three-story log cabin they began building last summer. Once that is finished, Martin said he will work as a management consultant.

"To me, retirement doesn't mean I'll never work," he said.

Martin was a captain in the South Gate Police Department before he became Downey's police chief on Jan. 4, 1978. His law enforcement career was interrupted briefly in 1982, when the City Council selected him to serve as interim city manager. Martin, who holds a master's degree in public administration, left the post after seven months because "I didn't feel like I was really doing what I thought I did best."

The City Charter calls for City Manager Don Davis to select a new police chief, who must be confirmed by the City Council. For Mayor James S. Santangelo, a Martin clone would be just fine.

"Bill brings a quite determined approach to making sure that the Police Department remains outstanding," Santangelo said. "I only hope that his successor is of the same cloth."

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