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THE WILLIAMS DECISION | NEWS ANALYSIS

Police Reform Effort Gave Panel New Clout

March 11, 1997|TED ROHRLICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Police Commission's decision Monday not to renew LAPD Chief Willie L. Williams' five-year contract provides some important measures of just how far Los Angeles has come on its post-Rodney King journey toward police reform.

"Screw you," then-Police Chief Daryl F. Gates said at one point after having promised to retire in time to make way for Williams, "I'll retire when I want to retire."

A chief unwanted by his civilian bosses on the commission can no longer hold the city hostage by refusing to get out, as Gates did five years ago. But because the chief still retains avenues of appeal--to the City Council and the courts--Williams may be able to hold the city up. He also may be able to get some going-away money through negotiations in the back rooms of City Hall.

Williams cannot fight what amounts to his dismissal as Gates did for a simple reason: A voter-approved change in the city charter inspired by the accountability-minded Christopher Commission rescinded the virtual job-for-life status that civil service protection had afforded a Los Angeles chief for half a century. Under the charter change, a chief is simply an employee with a five-year contract that can be renewed once at the discretion of the civilian Police Commission appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 20, 1997 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Police Commission--A photo caption that accompanied a March 11 story about the Police Commission's decision to reject Chief Willie L. Williams' bid for a second term was incorrect. The police officers shown in one photo were listening to Commission President Raymond C. Fisher at a news conference, not Williams.

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That change actually was an attempt to take city government back toward what the Progressive Era reformers envisioned, when they drafted the charter in the 1920s. The original charter called for city departments to be managed by such panels of part-time civilians.

Civil service protection for department heads, including the police chief, was only introduced after corruption scandals in the 1930s. The idea was to insulate the chief from political pressures and leave him free to honestly investigate crimes by other city officials.

But the move had another effect. It radically tipped the balance of power between the chief and his ostensible bosses on the Police Commission, who could no longer fire him without proving misconduct in a full-blown adversary hearing.

The result, according to the Christopher Commission, was that police commissioners became mere boosters and rubber stamps for the Police Department, rather than its board of directors.

The chief's "independence . . . ultimately created a principality within the city," former Police Chief Ed Davis said. "Chiefs who stay[ed] too long look[ed] upon the department as their personal fiefdom and resist[ed] all external change."

The Christopher Commission also wanted the City Council to relinquish its authority to second-guess commission decisions. But the council balked. Its unwillingness to step aside is the main reason that Williams now has room to maneuver politically.

How damaging and divisive that maneuvering may be to the city depends on whether Williams' public support turns out to be as deep as it is wide, and on how stiff a fight his supporters decide to wage on his behalf.

Williams also must decide whether to stick to his reported demand that he be paid $3 million to drop plans for a lawsuit and walk away quickly and quietly from his $173,000-a-year job.

City officials may want to smooth a path for his successor by paying Williams to go away. "It's going to be bad enough to find a new chief with credentials who is willing to dive into this far-from-happy picture," said a deputy general counsel to the Christopher Commission who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It will be harder still to find someone to dive in when, at least conceivably, some court may say his predecessor was still eligible for the job."

Political consultant Joe Scott predicted that the Riordan administration will view a Williams buyout as taxpayer money well spent. Scott, who worked in the first election campaign of the multimillionaire lawyer-businessman but has since become a harsh critic of the mayor, noted that the ousted city zoo director and Ethics Commission director were both given consulting contracts to ease their transitions and, in the case of the Ethics Commission director, to fend off a threatened defamation lawsuit.

"This crowd has a tendency to use money to get rid of problems," Scott said of the Riordan administration. "The essence of it is the deal: What do we need to send him home happy?"

One possible reaction to such a move can be seen in the comment of former Los Angeles Police Officer Barry Levin, now a lawyer whose clients include the department's command officers association. He said he believes that Williams at this point is just after money. "It's like a robbery, but he's not using a gun," Levin said.

Another reaction still not quite certain is that of the City Council. At the moment, the chief does not appear to have the votes to overturn the Police Commission decision. But if public sentiment moves strongly in the chief's favor, who knows?

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