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THE WILLIAMS DECISION

Panel Votes Not to Rehire Chief : Williams Sends Mixed Signals on His Options

LAPD: In unanimous decision, commissioners praise his public outreach but cite management flaws. Any appeal faces long odds, experts say.

March 11, 1997|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Police Chief Willie L. Williams, who charmed the public and helped restore its confidence in the LAPD, but who struggled to take command of the department and disappointed many of the city's top leaders, was rejected Monday in his bid for a second five-year term.

"We know the chief's strengths and weaknesses; we know the department's strengths and weaknesses as well as its needs," the city's Police Commission said in a statement read by board President Raymond C. Fisher. "As right as the chief may have been when he was selected, he does not have the confidence of this board to lead the department for the next five years."

The vote of the ethnically diverse, five-member board, Fisher added, was unanimous.

In explaining its decision, the board released a lengthy review of Williams' tenure, crediting him with strong public outreach, but methodically listing management breakdowns, from the department's failure to produce an adequate biopsy of the career of former Det. Mark Fuhrman to its failure to integrate the work of various consultants hired to analyze the LAPD.

"The board concluded . . . that the department cannot continue without more effective management, and therefore concluded that strengthening the department's management will require a change at the top, a new chief," the commission statement said.

Monday's announcement ends a two-month evaluation of the chief that has tested the principle of civilian oversight of the Police Department. It also opens what could be a two-pronged final battle, one legal and one political, if Williams decides to fight for his job. Lawyers for Williams have publicly floated their options, which include asking the City Council to overrule the Police Commission or filing a lawsuit to protest the decision.

But Williams, the first African American to lead the LAPD and one of the city's most popular public figures, appears to face long odds in either effort. On Monday, he sent conflicting signals about his next move--sometimes seeming to suggest that he will fight on, other times anticipating life after the LAPD.

"I'm deeply disappointed as a citizen by the decision that was made by the Police Commission this morning," Williams said at a news conference, one of three on the subject that were televised live Monday. But "a decision has been made, and I will leave that decision as it is."

Keeping His Options Open

At the same time, Williams avoided foreclosing any options.

He said that council members might decide to overturn the matter, and he declined to comment on the possibility of a lawsuit. And yet, even as he hinted that those options were still alive, the chief closed his news conference with remarks suggesting that he was looking beyond his own term toward retirement from policing.

"I'm going to be living in my nice home here in the city of Los Angeles, probably going to have to take out the city phone so I don't get those early morning phone calls, but I'm always going to be concerned about the men and women of this organization," Williams said. "I'll be entertaining some private sector opportunities . . . and I'm going to spend some time with my wife and children and grandchildren."

Williams' comments may reflect the growing consensus that if he chooses to fight, he would have a tough time winning.

Legal experts note that the City Charter specifically gives the Police Commission the right to refuse a chief a second term, a fact that greatly weakens any potential legal case. Council members, meanwhile, say Williams seems short of the 10 votes out of a possible 15 needed for the council to overturn the commission's decision.

According to sources, Richard Alatorre, Richard Alarcon, Hal Bernson, John Ferraro, Rudy Svorinich Jr. and Joel Wachs are solid votes against having the council wade into the fray. Council members Marvin Braude, Laura Chick and Mike Feuer also are considered unlikely to vote to yank the matter out of the commission's hands.

"I think the majority of council members are not inclined to overturn what the voters intended," Feuer said, referring to the 1992 ballot measure that adopted key recommendations of the police reform group known as the Christopher Commission. Among other things, that measure imposed term limits on the chief and gave the Police Commission the authority to decide whether a second term was warranted.

Holden's Criticism

Chick agreed that the council did not appear inclined to overrule the Police Commission and said she would not support such a move.

But Councilman Nate Holden, the chief's strongest City Hall ally, has pressed on despite the votes lining up against him. On Monday, Holden, who was in Washington when the decision was announced, called the move "a dirty trick on the chief and the city of Los Angeles."

Holden wants the City Council to review the commission action, a position joined by Councilwoman Rita Walters, another of the chief's strong supporters.

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