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Instead of a Civic Earthquake, City Sees a Game of Chess

March 11, 1997|BILL BOYARSKY

This was supposed to be another of those days when Los Angeles was turned upside-down.

The harbingers of doom--the television crews--arrived at Parker Center early, many of them veterans of previous civic trauma--the Rodney G. King beating, the riots, the fires, the O.J. trials, each event touted as powerful enough to drive a stake through L.A.'s civic heart.

But so far none of them have, and this one--the Police Commission's refusal Monday morning to give Police Chief Willie L. Williams another five-year contract--hasn't done it either.

What the crews got was not a dispatch from a city asunder, but a lot of talking-head TV. That was because the real story was the beginning of a complicated battle of tactics between Mayor Richard Riordan and Williams, as intricate and obscure as any of L.A.'s politics.


Round One: Chief Williams strides into the Parker Center auditorium about an hour after the Police Commission announcement. He smiles broadly, exchanges a few words with a press aide and then bounds onto the stage.

This is Willie Williams the popular champ, who has won the affection of those attending community meetings around the city, the man the polls show is the most popular official in town.

He is the victim of politics, he tells the assembled press corps. (This was also the claim of his predecessor, Daryl F. Gates, who blamed politicians for his downfall. Perhaps the attitude comes with the job. Possibly it's something in the air-conditioning in the chief's office.)

Now he lands his best punch: He tells the reporters that it's up to his supporters in the community--"the people who pay my salary"--and in the Police Department to persuade two-thirds of the City Council to overturn the Police Commission's decision. "I have dealt with hundreds and hundreds of officers in the department and tens of thousands [of people] in the community," he says.

His critics will think that's a low blow, tantamount to playing the race card.

Williams, the city's first black chief, clearly is well-liked in many African American neighborhoods, although he has strong support in all groups. There was not a hint of racial pandering at his news conference. But the issue has been an

unmistakable undertone for months, and now threatens to break out into the open.


Forgive me, students of literature, but I am now going to mix my metaphors.

Follow me into the mind of our leading municipal chess player, Mayor Riordan.

It's a half-hour after the chief's news conference, and Riordan is holding one of his own.

Right in the middle his comments, Riordan makes the move of the day.

He proposes that Williams' top black commander, Deputy Chief Bernard Parks, be named interim chief until a permanent successor is found.

Check. Maybe even checkmate.

Parks is a cop's cop, a by-the-book veteran who was a protege of former Chief Ed Davis, who defended the department in a colorful manner that angered L.A.'s liberals but made him highly esteemed in the department.

Parks' roots in L.A.'s black community run deep. That's where he grew up. That's where he lives, unlike Williams, a San Fernando Valley resident. Parks' connections with City Council members also run deep--and across the board, politically. He's cultivated council members of every race and political persuasion.

And it's paid off for him during the long political battles he's had during Williams' regime. He had to endure a demotion from assistant to deputy chief, but the strength of his political connections helped persuade Parks to stick around, waiting in the wings in case Williams left.

Riordan replied sharply when I asked him at his news conference Monday if the fact that Parks was African American was a factor in his decision to recommend him. "Absolutely not," said Riordan. "To even consider that race had anything to do with it is insulting to Angelenos and the department."


We could lament that our police chief and our mayor are playing such clearly different games here. Or we could try to handicap the outcome of this strange matchup.

Williams is playing it like a slugger. He's hoping to overpower the mayor with the popular support he believes he has.

Riordan's a chess player, working out moves in his head far ahead of the heat of daily combat.

My money's on the chess player.

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