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.

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

Williams's Saturday morning community talk ends with a typical question period: Why does it take three hours to respond to a burglary? How do we level complaints at a particular officer? Why can't there be a hotline for stolen cars? He takes all comers with courtesy and wins respect for his directness and honesty.

"Nobody wants to wait three hours for a policeman," Williams says. "But we are so cut to the bone that every single patrol car is responding to some crime in progress. There are simply priorities."

Two days later, in his sixth-floor office in the downtown Parker Center, Williams will round out the picture of what faces him in Los Angeles: 12-hour days, six-day weeks - not including paperwork on Sundays and after hours, not including Saturday talks (the elementary school address was one of three), and not including attending several midnight officer roll calls. That has been his primary means of meeting every member of the force.

"I give them five minutes of who I am and where I want to go, then open it up to whatever's bothering them," he says. The questions come fast and furious, he adds: How is he going to deal with racism? Sexism? Promotions? Outdated equipment? Some ask why he has lunched with gay and lesbian groups or given interviews to the "enemy" Los Angeles Times.

"I tell them it's my job to represent the department to everyone we serve," he says.

Usually attended by perhaps the two dozen officers of a given shift, the roll-call meetings have become standing room only.

"When I took over, there was a major mistrust by the rank and file of management," says Williams. Besides the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, trial, and riots, the department had been dealing with several large lawsuits. The controversial campaign for a new chief came amid the cutting of 500 officers for budgetary reasons.

"I have found there is a large desire in officers to once again feel they are part of a unified, cohesive unit," Williams says. Hence strategy No. 1 - communication and coalition-building to restore trust. He was chosen as chief from a roster of candidates that included several within the LAPD, and there has been resistance to him as an outsider. There has also been resistance to him as African-American, he says (he is president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officers). "I have cut

through that at least to the point where officers are saying, `Let's see what he can do,' " he says.

Simultaneously, Williams says he has worked double-time to ensure that Los Angeles is ready for major outbreaks of civil unrest. That has meant establishing absolutely clear channels with local, state, and federal authorities such as Gov. Pete Wilson and the National Guard. And it means more distinctly defining the roles of low-, middle-, and high-ranking officers in the field during major emergencies.

The chance of further riots will increase this fall, say several observers, with the scheduled retrial of one officer indicted in the Rodney King beating, and with the trial of three African-Americans charged with beating white truck driver Reginald Denny during the spring riots. Williams tells community leaders not to wait for the verdicts to talk with gang members, to appeal for calm.

The former Philadelphia chief says it took eight months for him to feel in command in his former job, and will take at least that long here. "I have found that expectations for me are about six feet over my head," he says. "I am trying to bring them back down to reality."

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