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THE LAPD : Confidentiality May Be Williams' Worst Enemy

June 18, 1995|Joseph D. McNamara | Joseph D. McNamara, who retired from the New York Police Department as a deputy inspector, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

STANFORD — Willie L. Williams is under assault because he is the first outsider to be named chief of the Los Angeles Police Department since 1949 and because he is attempting to change an unusually stubborn police culture. Nor can his race be ignored as a motive for attack, given the history of the Police Department's treatment of minorities.

I can empathize with the chief. In Kansas City, I was an "outsider" chief with a mandate to improve relations with the city's minorities. Within a short time, I was under investigation by the police commission on charges leveled by subordinates. It took months before the commission concluded that the charges were groundless. Years later, when I was police chief of San Jose with much the same mandate, it did not take long before I received a vote of "no confidence" from the police union, and several of its supporters on the city council called for my ouster. Fortunately, both attacks blew over and I was able to complete many years of service.

Part of the problem in Los Angeles is that its cops, though many of them are dedicated and thoroughly professional, resist change even more than most people. In addition, many of the department's top commanders were candidates for the chief's position. Like the rank and file, they have Civil Service tenure and resent the fact that the powers-that-be went outside the department to pick a new chief. Williams won an impressive-looking uniform but nothing like the power a CEO in private industry has over personnel. All this enables people in the LAPD to openly question the chief's leadership and to take potshots at his integrity.

The negative police culture is exacerbated by a flaw in the City Charter that, in effect, allowed Williams' predecessor to make statements that nurtured anti-minority sentiments among the LAPD's rank and file yet never face discipline. Statements that in other cities would have caused his removal.

On the other hand, the Police Commission that reportedly has reprimanded Williams for allegedly "lying" about receiving free accommodations in Las Vegas is composed of diverse representatives of the city. As such, it does not seem to be a participant in the venomous attacks on Williams. Nor did Mayor Richard Riordan apparently relish his role in supporting the Police Commission's action.

Given the importance of the issue for Los Angeles, it is ironic that the facts of the case are hidden because state labor law requires that personnel actions be confidential. That law, in part, is the result of pressure exerted years ago by the Los Angeles Police Protective League, along with other powerful police unions, on state legislators to restrict the public's access to personnel problems in government. In such an environment, leaks and innuendoes can easily erode any presumption of innocence.

The two most repeated allegations against the chief are that he solicited complimentary rooms and other perks in Vegas, then lied to the Police Commission about the circumstances surrounding the gratuities. Most police departments have rules against accepting gratuities, but they are surprisingly complex. Removing a good police chief who accepted a complimentary perk on one occasion would ordinarily not be justified even if he or she had suffered a temporary lapse of judgment. In all likelihood, 25% to 50% of L.A. cops will undergo some sort of discipline during their careers and it is good policy to administer just enough punishment to deter future misconduct and not to hold a past mistake against a cop forever.

Nevertheless, the charge of lying is deeply troubling. A cop with a reputation for lying is about as useful as a bus driver without a driver's license. The police are required to testify in court; if they lack integrity, the whole system of justice is undermined. It is the police chief's responsibility to see to it that cops are truthful. A reprimand is the lightest discipline possible. If the commission found that the chief had deliberately made a false statement during an official investigation, it would have had to recommend dismissal. After all, the "blue code of silence" depends on cops lying to cover up officer misconduct.

One of a police chief's greatest challenges is to get officers to tell the truth even if it means compromising another cop. There is no way that a police chief who lied could ever gain the rank-and-file credibility needed to lead the force, which is why Williams feels compelled to appeal to the City Council.

Is there any way to draw back from the political brinkmanship that seems to be developing? One solution is for Williams to waive his right of confidentiality and appeal directly to the public, as well as to the council, for a judgment on the facts. A full airing might turn the episode into a win-win situation. It would certainly give Williams, the mayor and the Police Commission a chance to clear the air.

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