Setting Out To Win Back a City
New L.A. police chief seeks to restore confidence amid crime, chaos - and budget cuts
AT 10 a.m. on a Saturday at the West Vernon Elementary School, Willie Williams strides to the podium amid thunderous applause. Two months into his tenure as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the former Philadelphia police chief is riding a wave of high expectations, buoyed by a collective sigh of relief over the departure of his controversial predecessor, Daryl F. Gates.Skip to next paragraph
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Broad-shouldered and standing tall at six feet, two inches, Mr. Williams is the city's first black police chief and the first in 40 years from outside the department. He has come to do what he is asking every member of his 8,300-member police force to do: win back the confidence of every neighborhood in the city. He starts with courteous but straight talk.
"You have a city where every category of major crime is on the rise," he says to the group of students, parents, administrators, and concerned local residents. He has been invited to speak by the community's city councilwoman.
Theft, rape, assault, burglary are all up 3 percent over last year, Williams tells his audience: "At the same time, police personnel numbers are going down." Before answering questions, Williams runs through a litany of woes - not to leave his watchers in a pit of despair, but to raise their consciousness about what post-riot Los Angeles is facing. Impending budget cuts
"The capital infrastructure of this department is falling apart," he begins. Some administrative buildings have been condemned; police cars with 140,000 miles and more are kept on the road with replacement parts from even older cars; female officers use bathrooms as changing rooms; police officers have lockers three feet high.
Impending state budget cuts will hurt the department even further, he says. He reiterates strategies he has been calling for since well before the Rodney King verdicts last May led to the largest civil disturbances in United States history: Community-based policing (including more officers on foot patrols) will be expanded from seven to 18 divisions; internal reviews will be made to standardize concepts of what constitutes "excessive force"; a re- examination of recruitment, training, and command structu re will thoroughly overhaul the existing LAPD structure. Centralized accountability will lead directly to Williams at the top.
Williams has also come here to plead for more community involvement. A new network of citizen advisory panels aims to open channels between officers and residents in every area of the city. But perhaps most important, Williams says he is asking for 1,000 additional officers to put on the street, if voters approve a November ballot initiative. At 2.2 officers per 1,000 population, Los Angeles is one of the nation's lowest-staffed departments.
"In every section of the city, my audiences say their No. 1 priority is more uniformed presence on the streets," he says, promising to shift all priorities from administrative and desk jobs to getting more officers onto walking beats and into patrol cars.
"Willie Williams is taking on one of the hardest jobs in American policing," says Jack Katz, a criminologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The city is going through one of the most chaotic periods in its history at the same time its ability to deal with that chaos is being undermined by budget cuts."
Williams "has laid out a blueprint, and it is solid," says Frank Grimes, vice president of the Los Angeles Police Protection League, which represents officers with the rank of lieutenant and below. "The mayor and city council agree that he couldn't have come under worse conditions. Yet he has had a very calming effect on everyone [by] simply taking the time to explain his understanding and approach." Respect for his directness