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THE LAPD : Council's Action Ensures a One-Term Police Chief

June 25, 1995|David D. Dotson | David D. Dotson served as assistant chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Four years after another Police Commission was defanged by the City Council, the current commission has suffered a similar fate. Both commissions were attempting to exert their City Charter-mandated authority over the chief of police. In both cases, a commission action was reversed without a presentation of the facts or a hearing on the issues. The consequences for the Los Angeles Police Department, unfortunately, are likely to be the same as well.

In April, 1991, the Police Commission relieved then-Chief Daryl F. Gates of his duty in the tempestuous aftermath of the Rodney G. King-beating incident. Commissioners believed that Gates' statements and actions were inflaming an already hostile relationship between the Police Department and significant sectors of the community. Gates threatened to sue. Within hours, the City Council voted to settle the as-yet-to-be-filed lawsuit, effectively reinstating him as police chief. Protected by Civil Service, Gates served until just after the LAPD's inept response to the '92 riots.

Last Tuesday, with no review of the facts or any public debate, the City Council voted to nullify the Police Commission's reprimand of Chief of Police Willie L. Williams. Again, the council faced a potential lawsuit because of leaks of confidential personnel information. Again, council members caved in, leaving open the question of whether Williams "lied" to his civilian bosses about receiving perks in Las Vegas.

During Gates' last year as chief, he was preoccupied with winning personal vindication and battling his critics inside and outside the department. He provided little direction to the organization. The search by many within the LAPD for objectives, goals and principles that had begun early in Gates' tenure evolved into a profound organizational drift, a condition that persists to this day, if Williams' critics are to be believed.

But Williams' leadership is imperiled for a different reason. Employees who are suspected of not telling the truth are generally treated harshly within police agencies. The public, let alone the criminal-justice system, must have confidence in the honesty of its officers. Liars are valueless. Seen in this light, the Police Commission's punishment for what it considered to be Williams' untruthfulness seems surprisingly weak.

Police officers have never been enamored of the department's disciplinary system. At best, they are grudgingly respectful. But reforms adopted in response to Christopher Commission recommendations, and the implementation of what are, in effect, new standards for measuring misconduct, have angered officers. Rightly or wrongly, they interpret these changes as undermining their law-enforcement effectiveness. Last week's developments will probably further erode confidence in the system.

One thing is certain, though. Fewer officers will accept summary penalties administered by the department without exhausting all appeals. Council members should not only expect personal appeals but also threats of lawsuits.

Still, will the council's action, as its members hope, end the matter?

As in 1991, council meddling may keep the peace for awhile, but it will not solve any of the long-range problems plaguing the LAPD. Respect for the chief within the Police Department will not grow, nor will he be any more effective in implementing the reforms he was hired to institute. His critics and those with a vested interest in maintaining the old style of policing can easily ride out the two years remaining on his contract, gambling that the next chief will be someone easier to support. The great experiment of bringing in an outsider appears to have failed, if realization of the Christopher Commission reforms is the standard of judgment.

Indeed, jockeying within the Police Department in anticipation of a search for a new chief began months ago. The chief's uncertain position and future will only accelerate the maneuvering for personal advantage. In the past, working-level cops tended to lose respect for the brass when top commanders were seen as merely trying to score points. Programs designed to make the boss look good have a way of making life more complicated for the people in the trenches. This can do nothing but worsen morale.

Absent a clear and unambiguous statement of support from the mayor, Williams is a lame duck. The council did not chase away the cloud of suspicion hanging over the chief. Williams' ability to direct long-term policy has been compromised. Those intent on discrediting him will be emboldened. More foot-dragging, more allegations of misconduct or mismanagement and more leaks are sure to occur. Bluntly put, the net effect of the council's action, at best, was the removal of a piece of paper from Williams' personnel file. If that document had remained, it would have effectively destroyed his chances of future employment at the top levels of his profession. Without intending to do so, the council may have helped ease Williams along on his way out of the LAPD.

In the meantime, the Police Department seems destined to drift aimlessly, pushed this way and that by the currents of internal dissension and external politics, its officers disheartened and hungering for leadership.

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