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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Raymond Fisher

Taking the Heat for the Chief Williams Decision

March 16, 1997|Jim Newton | Jim Newton covers the Los Angeles Police Department for The Times

Raymond C. Fisher, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, presided over one of the most controversial decisions in recent city history last week when he and four other members of the commission unanimously voted not to bring Police Chief Willie L. Williams back for a second, five-year term.

Williams' supporters are still fighting for the chief, and the City Council may consider a motion this week to overturn the commission, a power the council has under what is known as Proposition 5. So far, Williams seems far short of the two-thirds majority he would need to prevail in such a vote, and he received a setback last week when former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, the man most associated with police reform in Los Angeles, weighed in to support the Police Commission and the process it used to evaluate Williams.

Still, Williams is a popular chief with a few well-placed supporters, including City Councilman Nate Holden. Should the matter of Williams' reappointment be debated in the City Council, it could be acrimonious and divisive, with heavy racial overtones.

Fisher, 57, who clerked for legendary U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. and served as deputy general counsel to the Christopher Commission, is a longtime fixture in the city's civil-rights community and a partner at the prestigious law firm of Heller, Ehrman, White & McAuliffe. A respected civil litigator, he is admired even by the lawyers for Williams, and is a careful, deliberate speaker. He is a native Californian and is married to Nancy Leigh Fisher, an English teacher. They have two grown children.

In an interview last week, he chose his answers carefully, acknowledging that the decision regarding Williams had put him and the other commissioners in the spotlight but pledging not to be distracted by the controversy that has erupted around it. Fisher said he has avoided lobbying council members directly, but he strongly warned that he believes any move to overturn the commission could jeopardize a mainstay of the city's police reform movement--one both he and Christopher have played key roles in.

If the council were to overrule the commission, Fisher said, he fears the result would be the erosion of the principle of civilian control over police.

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Question: Back in 1991, when you were deputy general counsel to the Christopher Commission, could you have anticipated the complexities that have arisen in this process of evaluating Chief Williams?

Answer: I think we foresaw quite a bit, in terms of how the process might play itself out. We obviously didn't anticipate that it would A) come into play so quickly and B) involve the kind of circumstances that were at work here--namely a popular chief of police who is really being criticized for serious management problems. Our model, obviously, was the problem of entrenched chiefs--who, in the case of Daryl Gates, was someone who had become impervious to any kind control or accountability . . . . The system was designed to avoid that kind of confrontational, painful, divisive situation.

I think, quite frankly, we did what the Christopher Commission and the voters intended. Whether we are upheld in that or not is probably a test of the viability of that system.

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Q: Would it work better if, as the Christopher Commission recommended, the council did not have any override authority?

A: Well, I like to think so. It eliminates the problem of having to depend on whoever the incumbents are at the time exercising restraint. I don't mean to be overly critical of the council. I understand that they have their agendas for each of their districts. But I do think that once that authority hangs out there, there's the temptation for someone to invoke it.

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Q: Were the council to override this decision, what would that do to the principle of civilian oversight of the Police Department and the chief?

A: This may sound self-serving, but I think the commission acted with utmost integrity--both in terms of what we did and in terms of trying to follow the mandate of the charter amendment. If this commission and what it did can't be sustained, then I think the system itself can't be sustained . . .

I don't see why any citizen would want to go through this again, put in the time and good faith effort, only to have it overturned because the chief and his supporters have been able to effectively campaign against it.

It is not a campaign. It should not be a campaign. The commission should not be in the position of having to make a public case against the chief. That is the very system that Prop. F was put in to avoid. If that's what happens here, as a practical consequence we might as well dispense with the system.

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Q: Some might describe the commission's analysis of the chief's strengths and weakness as an attempt to build a public case against him.

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