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LAPD Chief's Reelection Is A Test of Police Accountability

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 11, 1997



LOS ANGELES

Willie" or won't he?

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The question of whether police chief Willie Williams will take the helm of the Los Angeles Police Department for a second term is being scrutinized by everyone from local citizens' groups to national police watchdog organizations.

The first black police chief and the first in 40 years from outside the LAPD, Mr. Williams was appointed in 1992 to restore confidence to a force demoralized after riots resulting from the beating of Rodney King. Now with his first five-year term behind him, the question is: Has Williams turned around a department criticized in the past for harboring racial sentiments?

Nationally, his reelection is seen as a major test of reforms to make police more accountable to the public. In many US cities, the mayor holds the power to appoint and remove the police chief. But in Los Angeles, a civilian police commission can appoint and fire the city's top cop - powers granted to the commission after the Rodney King incident.

"The whole American policing community is watching this case to see what lessons have been learned about police accountability in the wake of L.A.'s struggles," says Mary Powers, executive director of the National Coalition on Police Accountability in Chicago. "They want to know how much community acceptance [Williams] has gained, but also what they can learn from how the new commission keeps him in line."

Because the police commission must complete its process by April 7, Williams has been lobbying hard for reelection. He has cited an overall drop in crime, reduced citizen complaints against the department, and expansion of the police force into community-based policing among his accomplishments.

A majority on the City Council and Mayor Richard Riordan (R) have questioned many of Williams's statistics and fault him for a general lack of leadership. Mr. Riordan, in particular, says he has welcomed new technology and personnel under the chief but "is far from satisfied" with his performance.

In the middle of this fray, the five-member police commission has announced the criteria under which it will evaluate Williams, including: "leadership and vision," "prevention of crime and reduced fear of crime," and "communication within and without the department."

"For years, the commission has had the power to appoint the chief but has had no means of effective control," says commission president Ray Fisher. "These criteria are being openly revealed and examined so we can get a reappointment on merits not politics."

Those merits will be scrutinized behind closed doors, Fisher says. At issue will be Williams's claims versus department records. Williams holds, for instance, that use-of-force complaints have declined 30 percent while citizen complaints have dropped 43 percent. But records are unclear as to whether such complaints are down because of more prudent officers or merely because they are confronting fewer suspects.

A KEY evaluation, says Fisher, will be Williams's esteem in the community. An L.A. Times poll released Feb. 6 bodes well for Williams. Fifty-eight percent of respondents say he should be renewed for a second term, compared with 26 who say he shouldn't.

Nationally, however, some observers note that because of the long-entrenched structure of the LAPD - which has failed to be reconfigured despite voter reforms - it might not matter who is chief.

"The LAPD's problems have very little to do with Williams's strengths and weaknesses," says James Fyfe, a criminologist at Temple University. The question, he says, is "not whether Williams has done a good enough job to deserve renewal but whether the leadership of the LAPD should be restructured to provide ... the tools to do a good job."