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Los Angeles Times Interview : Deirdre Hill : Heading the Police Commission During a Time of Troubles

September 24, 1995|Gayle Pollard Terry | Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times

The embattled Los Angeles Police Department can't seem to escape controversy. Deirdre Hill, the chair of the Police Commission, is the calm in the eye of this political storm. Cool and unemotional, she refuses to allow today's headlines to detract from the commission's steady focus on reform and public safety.

Hill, 35, is no stranger to politics. Mayor Richard Riordan appointed her to the commission two years ago. Her mother is state Sen. Teresa Hughes (D-Inglewood). But the politics distracting the Police Department has little to do with fighting crime.

Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams, who came to the job with high accolades, is now serving under a cloud. The Police Commission, the civilian head of the LAPD, had reprimanded Williams in June for making misleading and inaccurate statements about whether he received free accommodations in Las Vegas. The chief attributed the controversy to a whisper campaign launched to undermine him. The commission's reprimand was then overturned by the City Council. Two police commissioners resigned in protest; Hill was elected the new chair in July.

The controversy revived when copies of the chief's confidential personnel records recently made front-page news. His earlier flat denials of receiving free accommodations did not square with revelations published by The Times on Sept. 15. Last week, Williams filed a $10-million claim against the city, alleging invasion of privacy.

But the state of the entire department, not just the chief's problems, is Hill's primary concern. And the LAPD is certainly troubled. About six weeks after Hill took charge, former Detective Mark Fuhrman, a lead prosecution witness in the O. J. Simpson trial, sorely embarrassed many of the men and women in blue when his racist and sexist comments were made public. Fuhrman also detailed, in tape-recorded conversations, how evidence was manufactured and people who had broken no law harassed.

If that wasn't bad enough, another detective was recently charged with soliciting a bribe and, in an unrelated case, two detectives were suspended for allegedly manufacturing evidence to implicate a murder suspect. And, one of the 44 "problem officers" identified by the Christopher Commission was involved in the fatal shooting of a Latino teen-ager in Lincoln Heights this summer.

Didn't the Christopher Commission report promise reform?

Hill is unhappy with the pace of reform like just about everyone else in Los Angeles. She's pressing the mayor and council for more resources to pursue those reforms, and to provide more competitive salaries and better working conditions for the good cops who she says dominate the LAPD.

A native of Los Angeles, Hill graduated from UC Santa Barbara and Loyola Law School. A business lawyer with a Westwood firm, she thinks long and hard before she speaks. And, what she says matters at Parker Center.

Question: Has the chief been given a fair chance in Los Angeles?

Answer: The chief came to Los Angeles at a time when there were great challenges in the department. He came at a time when we were faced with the Rodney King incident and the riots. We've had earthquakes. We've had emergency after emergency, and we continue to face ever-increasing challenges every day. The Mark Fuhrman issue is one of those.

Clearly, because he is an outsider, it has been difficult for him to be accepted within the Los Angeles Police Department.

Q: Did it help to have a black chief when the Fuhrman tapes were made public?

A: The public heard a sense of commitment from both the Police Commission and the chief to do what we can to deal with racism, and a recognition that those issues exist both inside and outside of the Police Department. As a citizen of Los Angeles, I don't know that we've heard that historically from the Police Department. I think that's progress, and I hope that the public will have more trust in the department doing what needs to be done in a critical situation.

Q: What needs to be done?

A: We need to look at the issues that arise out of the [Fuhrman] tapes. We need to look at our environments to see what the problems are, openly air them and find strategies to deal with them--not ignore the issues, as was done in the past.

Q: How have the Fuhrman tapes affected morale in the department?

A: Clearly, they have had a devastating impact on how the officers feel the public perceives them. That is difficult when you have police officers who are working in a situation where they don't have the equipment. They don't necessarily have the most competitive pay. And, they often feel they are unsupported by the management.

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