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NEWS ANALYSIS : New Clout Frees Chief to Pursue LAPD Goals

September 22, 1993|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fifteen months after taking over the Los Angeles Police Department, Chief Willie L. Williams at last has the authority to hire and promote the officers he commands, a breakthrough that he and other leaders say is as important symbolically as it is essential to his management of the LAPD.

That power was hard-won, coming only after more than a year of lobbying by the chief and a conspicuous appearance in City Council chambers by Mayor Richard Riordan when the matter came to a vote. Backed by Riordan and Williams, it passed unanimously earlier this month, amid great praise from city leaders.

Councilwoman Laura Chick, a member of the Public Safety Committee, lauded her colleagues for agreeing to "take the handcuffs off" Williams.

The chief, who normally takes good news and bad with barely a hint of emotion, gushed over that victory and immediately set to work planning for his new authority. Speaking to police officers via videotape, Williams called the vote "very, very, very good news" and said it ends a period where he had to go to City Hall with hat in hand to plead for support on even the most trivial personnel moves.

"To have to have approval for moving people around was silly," Williams said in an interview. "This gives me the authority I need to manage."

Beyond the rudiments of day-to-day management, some also see the change as an essential ingredient in reforming the department.

James Fyfe, a Temple University professor and longtime critic of the LAPD, likened the former system to a hostage situation in which Williams was held captive by the department's Old Guard.

"You've got a police chief who's resented by a lot of people inside that department," Fyfe said. "It's like electing Bill Clinton and then telling him he has to use George Bush's cabinet."

Although the vote should streamline department management, observers in City Hall and Parker Center also see it as a signal of the new cooperative spirit between those two entities, which were increasingly at odds in the closing months of the tenure of Chief Daryl F. Gates. That cooperation may ultimately prove as important to the chief as his new freedom, observers said.

"I think the vote is of great importance, both real and symbolic," said Gary Greenebaum, president of the city Police Commission. "It shows that we're moving away from the tremendous amount of suspicion that existed near the end of Chief Gates' Administration, and it, for the first time really, allows Williams to become the chief."

Chick, who sponsored the motion that gave Williams his new authority, agreed. "This is a very strong vote of confidence and trust," she said. "It says: 'We'll let you be the true-blue manager of your department.' "

Even the endorsement of City Hall leaders is a two-edged sword, however. Gates cultivated his distance from City Hall, boasting that he was not a politician. Some officers view Williams as too close to the city's political structure, and some grumble longingly for the days when Gates would defiantly go his own way.

Although Williams declines to criticize his predecessor, he has consistently adopted a different posture, arguing that it is foolhardy to antagonize other leaders when the department's interests are intertwined with the city's.

Evidence of that, officials said, is the restrictive hiring and promotion limits that a wary council refused to lift under Gates, whose leadership made them and Mayor Tom Bradley increasingly uncomfortable. Because of the restrictions, Williams said, vacancies have gone unfilled throughout the LAPD ranks for more than a year, and a cumbersome advertising process for positions has made it difficult for Williams to add officers even to his personal staff.

The limits on Williams' authority drew the attention of department critics, including Fyfe, a former police officer who has written extensively about police issues and the LAPD. Fyfe is among many observers of the department who believe that Williams will only be able to make his mark on the LAPD when he puts his own management team in place.

"I always have regarded his ability to promote people at his pleasure as the most important tool he could have," Fyfe said. "It really is the key."

But if the vote gives Williams new authority, it also conveys new responsibility, for now he can be held accountable for the state of the LAPD. By his own admission, the department remains deeply mired in problems: Equipment is antiquated, cars and station houses are dilapidated and morale is so bad that many senior officers say it has never been worse.

Before, Williams could rightfully blame many of those problems on City Hall. And even with his new authority, Williams still will rely on the council and mayor for funds. But now, Williams will have new powers to control his department, making it far more difficult to shift responsibility for its management.

Williams acknowledged the new burden but said he welcomes it.

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