Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams said Monday that his department faces a staffing crisis that threatens its ability to provide even basic services, such as investigating crime and rolling out enough patrol cars to keep watch over the streets.
Speaking to the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., Williams said the department's patrol and detective operations are his highest priority as he struggles to respond to a steadily rising rate of serious crime with 7,900 sworn officers, more than 400 fewer than the department had until a hiring freeze took effect last year.
But he assured the luncheon crowd of 350 business leaders in Woodland Hills that he does not believe in sapping the strength of police divisions in parts of the city with relatively low crime rates to supplement the ranks in areas that are more troubled. Rather, he said, he would set minimum staffing levels for each of the city's 18 divisions and try to maintain them except during a major citywide emergency such as last spring's civil disturbances.
"Snatching officers out of areas with less crime . . . is a bad practice," he said. "Gang members will get on to that . . . and you'll see deterioration in those areas too."
Earlier this month, in one of his first decisions after taking the helm, Williams ordered 40 officers who had been temporarily moved to South Los Angeles from the Westside and Valley bureaus to return to their permanent assignments.
Williams' comments on the issue seemed aimed at assuring the crowd that the Valley would get its fair share of the additional 1,000 police officers who could be hired if voters next November approve a $100-million tax increase proposed by Mayor Tom Bradley. The Valley, the most fiscally conservative area of the city, has 40% of the city's voters and its position is considered crucial to the fate of the measure, which requires a two-thirds favorable vote to pass.
"If I have 1,000 more officers, you have my commitment to put them on the streets," he said.
But, in a nod to opponents of a tax increase, Williams reminded them that he had not proposed the tax, which would cost the owner of a 1,500-square-foot home about $73 per year. "I would like to be here past Christmas," he said.
Regardless of how many officers he has available, Williams said, he plans to solicit community opinions regarding their deployment and the services that they offer. He said community-based policing, the oft-repeated phrase that has come to sum up the differences between Williams and the hard-nosed crime-fighting philosophy of former Chief Daryl F. Gates, "doesn't mean you need more money or more people."
Instead, he said, it is a "management philosophy" that allows the Police Department to respond to the varying needs of different areas of the city.
He assured the business leaders that their views would shape a restructuring of the department and its nearly $1-billion budget.
"It's OK to say that the police have to do things for business," said Williams, who received a standing ovation from the friendly crowd when he was introduced. "It's not a dirty word as it once was."
Tailoring his philosophy of community-oriented policing to his audience, he said the department should be seen as one of the city's largest businesses with its "customers" being the city's 3.4 million residents. Like any business, he said, the department must meet customers' needs.
"We need your help," he said. "We need your input and we need your support."
Third District Councilwoman Joy Picus, who invited Williams to the forum and introduced him, called Williams' speech "a real appeal to the opinion makers of the San Fernando Valley to support the new style of policing."
She said Williams seemed to have an open mind and "a very different approach" from Gates.
After his remarks, Williams said he had not decided how to gather views from the community or precisely how they would influence his department's decision-making process.
He said that in Philadelphia he consulted with a group of advisers drawn from business, industry and education. But he said he was still working on his plans for creating a similar group in his new job.