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Popularity Does Not a Police Chief Make

February 02, 1997|David D. Dotson | David D. Dotson is a former assistant chief of the Los Angeles Police Department

To paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, ". . . a police commissioner's lot is not a happy one."

In deciding who the next police chief will be, the Police Commission faces an unrewarding task, given the circumstances of Chief Willie L. Williams' selection five years ago, his relative and continuing popularity in certain communities and the controversies that have erupted over his personal conduct and honesty, and his professional performance in the Police Department.

Yet, the commission should not dwell exclusively on the past. A far more important question is what Williams' reappointment might mean for the future of the Los Angeles Police Department. Judging by his and the department's performance during the four and a half years he has run the organization, it is not a bright and promising one.

There is little doubt that Williams' score in the competitive examination preceding his selection as chief was bumped up to ensure that he, as an outsider, would be in strong contention with five other candidates from inside the Police Department. This alone was enough to discredit him in an organization that has long embraced, and proudly so, a merit system for determining promotion. It also embittered many of the losing candidates, top administrators upon whom Williams has had to depend in managing the department. Subsequent events have only served to deepen their resentment.

The chief's middle managers, the captains and lieutenants, continue to express dismay at what they see as confusion and indirection at the top of the LAPD command. The top brass, in turn, blames Williams who, they say, has never accepted their advice. Whoever is to blame, the consequence is unmistakable: The department is drifting.

Williams' appeal among the department's rank and file is not much better than it is up the chain of command. As petty as it may seem--and is--the chief's weight problem costs him respect in some quarters. More damning in officers' eyes is the fact that Williams has never qualified for the basic peace-officer certificate that every rookie must earn to remain employed by a law-enforcement agency in California. Finally, cops on the street complain that their chief offers only tepid support for officers who are, in their view, unfairly attacked for just doing their job. These concerns take on an added energy when Williams is compared with his predecessor. Whatever else you can say about him, Daryl F. Gates kept in good physical shape and devoted much of his time to consolidating his popularity among the "troops."

Williams' civilian bosses, police commissioners past and present, often express dissatisfaction with his leadership of the department. They have been particularly critical of the accuracy and completeness of requested information the commission has received from the department. The distrust and bad feelings created by William's lack of candor in responding to commission questions about his trips to Las Vegas still linger. And last week's heated exchange between Williams' lawyers and the Police Commission over the criteria to be used to evaluate the chief's performance can only further sour the relationship.

With so many within and outside the LAPD unhappy with William' leadership, it would seem that prospects for significant departmental reform are poor, at best. Add to this the fact that Williams, upon his reappointment, would become an instant lame duck, a chief with few incentives, beyond keeping his job, to be responsive to the wishes of the Police Commission or to implement much-needed reforms in the LAPD.

Nevertheless, Williams' credibility and appeal in the community has remained high and consistently above those of other city officials. His current campaign to win reappointment deftly exploits this political capital. The chief's skillful handling of the murders of Enis Cosby and Corie Williams is a case in point. Chief Williams has been extremely cautious in his public remarks concerning the Cosby murder and in keeping expectations about solving it low, no doubt mindful of what publicity can do to a case involving a celebrity. Meanwhile, he has seemingly delivered on his assertion that the LAPD treats all murders equally. Six suspects, including the alleged shooter, have already been arrested in the teenager's slaying, which occurred the same day as Ennis Cosby's, and he has maintained a relatively high profile throughout the case, which has attracted national attention and sympathy.

Indeed, Williams' major achievement has been to reassure the community that he, as chief, is committed to making the LAPD more responsive to and less oppressive of the citizens it polices. But having done that, he has failed to follow through on the internal reforms that will turn his commitment into a reality. For example, the machinery--community substations--to get community-based policing into the streets is in place. But many of the substations are not consistently open for business.

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