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Adios, Chief; Make Way for Latinos

LAPD:Willie Williams never even tried to reach the city's majority 'minority'.

March 09, 1997|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Like many other Angelenos, I took an instant liking to Willie Williams when he came here from Philadelphia to take the post of police chief. I still like him, but I think it's probably best that he now step aside as head of LAPD.

Five years ago, Williams was a breath of fresh air compared to the hubristic martinet he replaced, Daryl Gates. And he seemed to really want to learn about Los Angeles, and to help a divided city find some kind of reconciliation--if not within itself, then at least with the police department in which it once took so much pride.

Williams did a better job of that than may be apparent now, with so much political flak flying over the issue of whether he should get another five-year term. Even while controversy over his future brewed in recent months, Williams has remained an effective and genuinely popular spokesman for LAPD with important segments of the public, like the black community and suburbanites in the San Fernando Valley, where he lives.

But Williams has not been nearly that effective with the city's Latino community, nor with the growing number of Latino officers in his own department. For example, in a public opinion poll conducted in February for La Opinion, the city's Spanish-language daily, only 48% of the 200 Latino voters polled felt that Williams' contract should be renewed by the Police Commission. Even more troubling, the chief's favorable rating among Latinos was down to 48%, where previous polls had measured it at almost 70%.

Sadly, I sense the same erosion of support for Williams in my own informal and admittedly imperfect polling of Latinos who are current or former LAPD officers.

Like many of their fellow officers, Latinos have problems with Williams that don't seem so significant to the public at large but matter a great deal to rank-and-file cops, like his acceptance of favors from Las Vegas casinos and his failure to qualify for a California peace officer's certificate.

But they add two points that are especially disappointing to them as Latinos. They say Williams has not learned to speak Spanish after promising to try. And he has failed to promote enough qualified Latinos to the top ranks of the department. While he has named two Latino deputy chiefs, Williams has yet to promote a Latino to the second-highest rank, assistant chief of police.

I can be charitable on the first point, knowing how hard it is for most adults to learn a new language. But it's the symbolism that is worrisome here, for if Williams had gone out of his way to learn and use just a little Spanish, it would have helped him a great deal in the Latino community.

As I've written before, despite an often troubled history of police-community relations in this city's barrios, most Latinos are favorably inclined toward the police. They are a culturally conservative people who respect authority, yet often live in high-crime neighborhoods.

Presumptuous newspaper columnist that I am, I even tried to explain that to Williams not long after he arrived in town. I urged him to look to the growing ranks of Latino officers in LAPD for support. I mentioned that he'd probably find them to be as loyal to the corps and as effective on the streets as the Italian American cops he worked with in Philadelphia.

That may have been a mistake, in retrospect. I'd forgotten that among the former police chiefs that Williams had to clean up after there was a pretty nasty character named Frank Rizzo.

But then, I'm sure I was not the only one encouraging Williams to cultivate the support of the many Latino officers working their way up the ranks of LAPD. If he had, his political position might be stronger now.

As it is, many of those same Latinos now find their names being bandied about as possible successors to Williams. And the Police Commission could do a lot worse than consider Deputy Chief David J. Gascon, Deputy Chief Robert Gil and Commander Art Lopez.

The commission can also look outside LAPD, to candidates like Chief Lee D. Baca of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Chief Edward W. Gomez, the southern division commander for the California Highway Patrol, or to retired LAPD captains like Joe Sandoval, the secretary of corrections in Gov. Pete Wilson's cabinet, or Rudy de Leon, an ombudsman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

While plugging Latino candidates for chief, I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention that some of the most impressive young LAPD officers I've met in the past few years are Latinas. None of them, unfortunately, is yet in a position to be seriously considered for chief. But, like former LAPD officer turned novelist Joseph Wambaugh, I look forward to the day when one of the most macho police forces in the world is headed up by a woman.

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