WILLIE Williams, the former police commissioner of Philadelphia who was sworn in as Los Angeles police chief June 26, assumes this city's top law enforcement post at the most critical juncture in its history.
Formalized in festivities here June 30, his appointment comes after a year-long, community soul-searching over police brutality culminated in the country's worst civil disturbances ever.
Mr. Williams faces a host of major hurdles. Besides a series of police reforms passed in June that will force more public accountability by the new chief, he will confront: * Resistance by long-entrenched subordinates to a leader who did not rise through their own ranks; * His status as a black in a police and civilian community that has recently bared racist attitudes once thought eradicated; * A police union that has come out against several ideas suggested by both Williams and independent analysts - for example, intermittent psychological testing for officers, and partner changes after five years.
"Although we are all rooting for him and all trying to be cooperative, Willie has a very formidable task ahead," notes Ramona Ripston, director of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Willie is certainly as interested in crime prevention as in apprehending criminals," says Ms. Ripston. "But we are not sure he will be able to do it."
To make the transition even more touchy, Amnesty International issued a harsh indictment of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in a 65-page report last week. After examining 60 lawsuits in which civil damages were paid to alleged victims of abuse, the worldwide human rights organization found "a serious problem [that] has even amounted to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."
Spotlighting arguments that use of excessive force has long been the rule rather than the exception in the LAPD, the report suggested that blacks and Latinos bore the brunt of police excesses here.
Williams, who is president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, is LA's first black police chief and the first in 40 years to come from outside its 8,300-member department.
In his nearly four years as chief of Philadelphia's 6,300-officer department, he developed a reputation for being tough on maverick or abusive police officers and as an innovator in community-based policing. This concept puts officers on foot patrol where they can interact more directly with citizens. And he supported storefront "mini-stations" where local volunteers and police officers work together to solve crimes.
"The citizens cannot exist without the Police Department and the support it gives them," Williams said on a tour of L.A. precincts last month. "The Police Department can't exist without the support of the citizens ...."
Williams comes armed with ideas to solve the LAPD's, and the city's, problems. In his June 30 swearing-in speech, he said that the examination of officers' training and of the public's complaint process would be among his priorities.
He also said he wants a screening system that will "pick out" overly aggressive or problem officers quickly. Referring to the beating of motorist Rodney King, the chief declared, "We have to make sure that circumstances don't again become real where more than a dozen officers could not get control of a single individual."
Williams's take-over has been met with a collective sigh of relief that his predecessor, Police Chief Daryl Gates, has finally vacated his post. The 14-year veteran was vilified by critics and the press.
Recent polls suggested that 85 percent of the population no longer trusted him - but Gates always maintained that he had the backing of most of his officers.
As recently as last month, Gates had threatened to delay his resignation to forestall the inauguration of a new chief.
Mayor Tom Bradley issued a statement saying Gates "brought Los Angeles to the brink of disaster just to satisfy his own ego" and is leaving "a sad and bitter legacy."
That legacy, which Gates calls one of the most efficient departments in the country but detractors label a "spit-and-polish paramilitary," is what Mr. Williams will have to change dramatically to ease current tensions.
The tone set from the top, say several national police authorities, is what eventually permeates the entire institution.
"I understand needs, I understand wants," Williams told a gathering of about 100 religious leaders at the Mt. Hermon Missionary Baptist Church in May.
Williams called for the leaders' help in restoring peace and easing tensions. "This Police Department is and will be your Police Department. You are going to be involved," he said.
Then Williams added: "We can take the best of the worst and move forward. It is still a very good and excellent Los Angeles Police Department. We can make [it] return to its high level of glory."