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NEWS ANALYSIS : A Mixed Milestone for Chief Williams : Police: Halfway into term, he is widely popular with public. But many officials, subordinates question his management.

December 28, 1994|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Police Chief Willie L. Williams marks the midpoint of his five-year term today, he closes the books on a mixed first half: Since arriving in Los Angeles, Williams has become the nation's most famous police officer and a beloved local figure, but his immense popularity has obscured growing doubts about his management of the LAPD.

The result is a paradoxical record, one in which Williams is accused of failing to take command of the department even as his job approval ratings top those of every public figure in Los Angeles and affection pours in from unexpected quarters.

Williams' force of personality was on display, for instance, when he appeared last spring at Cal State L.A. to discuss community-based policing. A group of protesters briefly interrupted the session to unfurl banners urging more money for education and less for police.

But when the meeting ended, the same demonstrators rolled up their banners and scurried down the auditorium benches for a chance to get their pictures taken with the chief. The charismatic Williams signed some autographs, shook some hands and answered a few questions. The same demonstrators who came to protest police left with keepsakes of their meeting with a cop who surprised them.

Venture into almost any one of the LAPD's run-down squad rooms, however, and a very different picture of the chief emerges. In the Hollywood Division one recent afternoon, several officers gathered quietly in a corner, drinking black coffee and privately grousing about the man they publicly salute.

"Big Suit," they call him, or, even more disparagingly: "His Corpulence." The working conditions at the station are dismal, the cars are run-down, even pencils and paper are sometimes hard to come by. There's talk of embarking on a more community-oriented style of policing, but these officers say they have seen little evidence of change.

Within the city's political circles, officials admire Williams' ability to woo the public and are intensely grateful for his success in restoring confidence in the LAPD after the Rodney G. King beating and the 1992 riots. Nevertheless, a consensus is building that Williams has been unable to take command of the department, has allowed highly touted reforms to languish and has failed to communicate a clear message to officers about where the department is headed and why.

All that has fostered an atmosphere of muted fury and quiet despair in the upper reaches of the LAPD, where command officers say they are eager to see the chief succeed but fear that he has allowed the organization to drift into near-paralysis. The rank-and-file police union and the Command Officers' Assn. have both talked of holding no-confidence votes, although neither has acted.

Williams dismisses much of the criticism, arguing that it is too soon to judge his record. He maintains that his efforts have been stymied by opposition inside the Police Department and that some of his critics are unwilling to accept an outsider as police chief--Williams is the first non-LAPD officer in a generation and the first African American to ever command the 7,950-officer department. Still, the chief acknowledges that opinion of his performance so far is divided.

"You'll talk with some people who will say: 'The chief's doing a good job, or he's doing a so-so job,' " Williams said in one of several recent interviews. "Others might say, 'When's he going to leave?' But as the chief of police you learn you have to live with that. You go through cycles, and it's part of the price you pay for sitting in the chair."

*

Even Williams' fiercest critics credit him with a historic accomplishment of the first order: By dint of his personality and his perseverance, Williams has reconstructed public faith in the LAPD.

On March 3, 1991, Los Angeles police officers struck and kicked Rodney King, not realizing that their actions were being recorded by a resident of a nearby apartment complex who had just bought a video camera. The images plunged the LAPD into its most tumultuous period ever.

A year later, after three officers and their sergeant were acquitted on all but one count, the LAPD came under fire again, this time for moving too slowly as rioters tore through Los Angeles. The violence left 53 dead. It also shattered the city's confidence in the Police Department and in Williams' prickly predecessor, Daryl F. Gates.

Williams arrived in a still-rattled Los Angeles barely two months after the riots. The week he took office, the police contract expired. By then, polls showed that more than half of all city residents had lost faith in the LAPD.

From the start, Williams worked tirelessly to change the department's image. Copies of his schedules for the past two years reveal a grueling pace of sessions with community representatives, meetings with some of the department's sternest critics, meeting after meeting in auditoriums, churches, and local gathering places. There is barely a neighborhood that Williams has not courted.

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