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HEARTS of the CITY | Essay / ROBERT A. JONES

Why Willie Went

March 12, 1997|ROBERT A. JONES

Willie Williams is gone. He's toast. And the Police Commission, in its 22 pages of hardly disguised contempt for the police chief, makes an overwhelming case that he mostly failed to carry out his mandate.

You could argue that the booting-out of Williams stands as a harbinger of better times for the city. In giving the commission the power to hire and fire the chief, Los Angeles fixed a system that was broke and--for once--fixed it right.

And yet this decision hardly makes you stand up and cheer. In fact, it leaves an unease, a suspicion that somewhere, something is not right.

Let me offer a couple of theories about that. The something-not-right feeling stems partly from the chief himself and the puzzle he presents. On Monday you could watch him making his dignified, post-firing statement and see the puzzle emerge.

Here is a man who, in public appearances, seems to possess all the attributes of a fine chief. He strides toward a podium like someone born to command, speaks easily and directly, oozes confidence.

That's the Williams that we see from week to week, and it's convincing. Last month, for example, he hit all the right notes in responding to the bank robbery-from-hell in North Hollywood. Making an appearance at the Bank of America branch the day after the shooting, he lavished praise on his officers, told their stories, and even, when nudged by reporters, refused to demand AK-47s for every patrolman on the force.

He walked like a chief and quacked like a chief. So doesn't that mean he is a chief?

No, it doesn't. This is the same man who dawdled so endlessly over the Christopher Commission reforms that the Police Commission was forced to take control of the process. The same man who has never, to this date, responded to studies suggesting ways to modernize the department.

The same man who has a habit of accepting travel freebies and then denying that he did it. Until the receipts show up. Who stayed on vacation in Vegas--Vegas--while a funeral proceeded for officer Charles Heim, killed in the line of duty.

Finally, the same guy who, sensing his coming demise, has tried to hustle $3 million from the city in guilt money.

How do you reconcile these conflicting messages? You don't. One impression proceeds from deep instinct, the other from intellect. The difference between them nibbles away at the back of your brain.

And that gets us to the second theory about the something-is-wrong, which goes like this: We are uneasy because Williams is being held accountable for certain crimes of character while his chief accusers, namely Mayor Richard Riordan, seemed to have escaped similar accountability.

Almost certainly, Williams is guilty as charged when it comes to the vision thing. Here's part of the commission report:

"The chief has been unable . . . to provide a direction and focus for the department. He has not articulated a vision for the department that is understood by his command staff . . . nor has he adequately translated such a vision into . . . actions. His directions are for the most part not followed. . . . "

OK, mentally remove the words "chief" and "department" from the above passage and insert the words, "mayor" and "city."

You see the point. To press it further, what is Riordan's "vision" for Los Angeles? When has he articulated such a vision? I mean, this a man who, for much of his term, made as many public appearances as Greta Garbo.

What if, for example, a Mayor Commission reviewed Riordan's handling of the MTA's subway project, oft referred to as the largest public works project in American history? Could such a commission conclude that the mayor, having the most powerful voice in this fiasco, has not "adequately translated such a vision into . . . action"?

And why couldn't a similar case be made against Sheriff Sherman Block and his Twin Towers jail folly or his inmate release program? And on and on.

But, of course, there is no Mayor Commission. No Sheriff Commission. Or City Councilman Commission or Supervisor Commission. So they survive and Willie Williams does not.

And it leaves a unease. That doesn't mean that Williams should stay or that his demise at the hands of the commission was wrong. Almost certainly, in fact, it was the right thing to do.

*

In Hollywood, there's a phrase for movie characters that don't make it to the end. The phrase is "DBTA," or Dead By the Third Act. A DBTA character may play a crucial role in the early going of the movie, but he's not heavy enough to carry the story to its conclusion. Essentially he's a transitional figure.

And that's Willie Williams. He was hired not to be Daryl Gates, and he wasn't. But neither was he the police chief that the city needs. So he goes, a DBTA.

Too bad there's not a few others.

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