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THE WILLIAMS DECISION

Police Upbeat; Some Activists Voice Concern

March 11, 1997|HECTOR TOBAR and BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In South-Central and East Los Angeles, he was seen as the antidote to Daryl Gates, a conciliator who would restore confidence in a Police Department that had become an unwelcome, occupying army.

But in the squad rooms of the LAPD, he was viewed as a bitter pill forced upon the rank and file by politicians, an outsider who never measured up as a leader or a cop.

The Police Commission's unanimous recommendation to bring an end to Willie L. Williams' tenure as police chief prompted widely differing reactions across the city Monday, faint echoes of the bitter divisions that led to his appointment two months after the 1992 riots.

"This is a sad day for the LAPD and it's a sad day for Los Angeles," said John Mack of the Urban League. "Chief Williams came in facing impossible odds and has done an outstanding job of turning around a department that has a legacy of brutality and racism."

By contrast, the mood was upbeat at police stations where officers gathered to watch the string of televised news conferences that announced the likely end of Williams' reign.

"He has no credibility here . . . the Police Commission had almost no choice," said Officer Clark Baker, who works the complaint desk in the LAPD's San Fernando Valley traffic office. "Every improvement in the LAPD has been not because of Chief Williams but despite his presence here."

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Others officers said that Williams rarely did the small things to show support for front-line troops. He almost never attended station roll calls, for example.

"He was not a very visible chief for the troops," said one command officer who requested anonymity. "I can't recall one roll call he attended here. The mayor's been to more."

The Police Commission's rebuke was a reminder of how much the political panorama of the city has changed since the days when the Rodney G. King beating set in motion a dramatic chain of events--including mass protests--that drove Gates from Parker Center.

The only way to overturn the commission's recommendation "would be with an enormous grass-roots movement," said Celes King III of the Congress of Racial Equality. However, Mayor Richard Riordan may have "taken the wind" out of such a movement, King said, by recommending that the commission appoint Deputy Chief Bernard Parks, an African American, to be interim chief.

Building a coalition in support of Williams also seemed unlikely because of the mixed reviews Williams has received among some minority leaders. Frustrated with the slow progress toward the many reforms outlined for the LAPD in the Christopher Commission report, these leaders are skeptical that Williams could achieve much given another five years.

Lupe Vargas, an Eastside neighborhood activist at the Ramona Gardens housing projects--where residents have clashed with police--gave Williams credit for setting a conciliatory tone, but little else.

"I don't think he could possibly have control over every police officer," Vargas said. "But I also didn't see any noticeable change in [officer's attitudes] from Gates to Williams." Some officers "continue to mistreat the residents and get away with it," she said.

Other community leaders said Williams should be given more credit for leading the department to a new era.

"Willie Williams represented a sense that the police really wanted to work with the public again," said Chris Williams, a Venice activist who serves on the community police advisory board for the LAPD's Pacific Division. "He's been a communicator and a binding force to bring communities together."

But instead of reconciliation, some LAPD officers saw betrayal in such efforts.

"In my opinion, he never did anything to develop a relationship with the rank-and-file officers," said Sgt. Jeri Weinstein who, works in the LAPD's West Valley station. "He's a politician--that's why he courted the community rather than the officers. I think that was totally detrimental to him."

Some officers said Williams, hired from the Philadelphia Police Department, had ample opportunity to win their support but that he never did. The officers said the chief arrived at a pivotal time in the department's history, but accomplished only half his mandate.

"He took us out of the fire," said Lt. Dan Hoffman, an assistant to Valley Bureau Deputy Chief Martin Pomeroy. "That was a benefit. Not to be slammed every day in the newspaper was nice."

The honeymoon didn't last long, however. Other officers said the unfolding of controversies involving Williams--from his failure to pass a state test that would allow him to carry a gun on the job to allegations that he lied to his bosses on the Police Commission--led them to support his ouster.

"We need some leadership," said one San Fernando Valley officer who declined to be identified. "We haven't had any under Williams."

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