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Christopher Defends Police Panel's Work

March 13, 1997|JIM NEWTON and JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Former Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher on Wednesday added his powerful voice to Los Angeles' liveliest political debate, expressing his support for the city's Police Commission and announcing that he believes the reform process he helped launch has worked as intended in the evaluation of Police Chief Willie L. Williams.

Although Christopher stopped short of endorsing the commission's decision not to rehire Williams for a second term, his statement made clear that he is firmly behind the Police Commission. Those remarks, coming from a figure who continues to wield considerable influence over local civic leaders, could further weaken Williams' political position as he lobbies the City Council to overturn the commission's decision.

"Without commenting on the decision itself, it appears to me that the civilian Board of Police Commissioners has faithfully and conscientiously carried out its responsibilities and that the process has worked as the voters intended," wrote Christopher, who chaired the police reform commission that in 1991 drafted sweeping recommendations for selecting and reviewing the city's police chief.

"We owe the commissioners a debt of gratitude for undertaking this difficult task," Christopher wrote.

That assessment is sharply at odds with the one offered by Williams and his lawyers. They have accused the commission of conducting a sham evaluation process intended to cover up their long-standing desire to dump the chief. Last week, Williams' lawyers predicted that the commission would refuse the chief a second term and said he is contemplating a lawsuit. So far, none has been filed.

On Wednesday, Williams' lawyers declined to comment on Christopher's statement. Asked whether he had any reaction, attorney Johnny Darnell Griggs responded: "I do, but I'm not going to share it at this point."

By contrast, Commission President Raymond C. Fisher expressed his gratitude to Christopher. "I thought it was a very welcome statement from someone obviously whom we all respect."

The Christopher statement marks the second time the former secretary of state has lent his backing to the Police Commission in recent months. The latest statement came on a day during which Williams' backers scrambled to drum up City Council support for the chief, but met with little apparent success. In fact, Christopher's statement, nuanced though it may have been, clearly will make it easier for council members so inclined to continue resisting the chief's entreaties.

Tuesday, Williams wrote to council members seeking their support and asking for a chance to discuss the matter with them personally. On Wednesday, he called the lawmakers and visited City Hall to begin lobbying.

So far, his efforts do not seem to have changed any votes on the 15-member body.

Most observers believe Williams could count on three to six votes if council members were asked to overturn the Police Commission's decision. Even before Christopher's statement, at least eight council members appeared ready to vote against Williams. The chief would need 10 votes to prevail.

Williams' backers, however, have not given up.

Councilman Nate Holden, the chief's most outspoken council supporter, Wednesday accused Police Commission members of acting improperly in rejecting Williams' bid for a second term and suggested that the board should consider stepping down.

Although some of the chief's supporters have tried to tone down the rhetoric over the issue--and Williams himself has been understated in his public comments this week--Holden took a different tack.

"A kangaroo court met and lynched Police Chief Willie Williams," Holden said at a news conference, holding up a picture of the chief, in uniform, with a rope stuck through the picture to hang around his neck. "We should be giving him a medal, not a discharge."

Holden--who said Williams should sue if the council does not overturn the commission and rehire him--and council members Rita Walters and Jackie Goldberg also wrote a letter Wednesday to council President John Ferraro, asking Ferraro to invite the Police Commission to a special meeting with the full council Friday to explain the rationale behind Williams' rejection.

"The disappointment expressed by . . . [Williams] is a disappointment deeply felt throughout many communities in our city," the three lawmakers wrote. "Given the chief's popularity and high regard among the people he serves, the commission owes the city a well-articulated explanation."

Ferraro said he saw no reason for a joint meeting unless the council moves to reconsider Williams' ouster. In a statement released late Wednesday, Ferraro said he believed the commission had adequately explained its actions to the public and said council members could seek private meetings with commissioners if they want more information.

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