Williams, Willie L. 1943–
Willie L. Williams 1943–
Los Angeles Police Chief
Heavy responsibilities for restoring peace and cooperation to riot-torn Los Angeles have fallen to Willie L. Williams, the new police chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Williams, who is the first black man to head Los Angeles’s police force, moved to that city in the wake of a nationally-televised incident of alleged police brutality and subsequent charges of racism in the 8,000-member police squad. As Richard A. Serrano and James Rainey put it in the Los Angeles Times, Williams faces a difficult task, but “he hopes to infuse new spirit into a department that has suffered an erosion of public confidence since the Rodney G. King beating” in March of 1991.
U.S. News and World Report correspondent Betsy Streisand described the job of chief of police in Los Angeles as “one of the toughest cop jobs in the country.” Williams feels he is prepared to meet the challenges, however. A career officer with a reputation for improving communication between police department officers and citizens, Williams served as police commissioner for the city of Philadelphia before moving west. He has vowed to bring that same regard for community relations to bear in his new post, recognizing that the ethnic mix in Los Angeles is even more diverse than in Philadelphia. “We start out recognizing that we are a city of differences, but that we don’t let those differences tear us apart,” he told the Los Angeles Times when he was sworn in. “To the citizens of Los Angeles, as your police chief I will be your spokesperson as well as your protector.”
The primary event leading to Williams’s choice as chief of the LAPD occurred in the spring of 1991, when a bystander captured film footage of several police officers beating a black man named Rodney King. Tensions in Los Angeles flared to outright anger when then-police chief Darryl F. Gates did not dismiss the officers. The incident served as a springboard for more allegations of racism, police brutality, and cronyism in the Gates administration. Philadelphia Daily News reporters Scott Flander and Don Russell noted that “thanks to a few minutes of videotape, [the LAPD] had become well known as perhaps the most brutal and racist police department in America.”
Williams was the only person outside the Los Angeles Police Department who was actively recruited to replace the discredited Gates as police chief. He was chosen to head the department by a panel that cited his experience
Born Willie Lawrence Williams, October 1, 1943, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Willie (a meat cutter) and Helen Williams; married wife Evelina, c. 1967; children: Lisa, Willie Jr., Eric. Education: Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, A.A., 1982; master’s degree candidate at St. Joseph’s University; attended Harvard University.
Fairmount Park Guards, Philadelphia, PA, 1964-72, began as patrolman, became sergeant; Philadelphia City Police Force, 1972-92, began as detective, promoted to captain, 1984, inspector, 1986, deputy commissioner, 1988, commissioner, June 1988-June 1992; Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles, CA, police chief, 1992—.
Member: National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (past president), International Association of Chiefs of Police, Los Angeles County Chiefs Association.
Addresses: Office —Los Angeles Police Department, Parker Center, 150 N. Los Angeles St., 6th floor, Los Angeles, CA 90012; or c/o Public Relations Department, Los Angeles Police Department, P.O. Box 30158, Los Angeles, CA 90030.
heading a big-city police force, his reputation for improving community relations, and his support for legislated changes in the way the department will be run in the future. Just before he was selected, Williams told Philadelphia magazine: “I would be going into Los Angeles with a real mandate. They want someone who believes in reform, and who can connect with the various minority communities out there. They represent 63 percent of the city population. There’s a morale problem in Los Angeles, and a need to enact... changes. That’s what came out of the Rodney King situation.”
Williams never expected to leave Philadelphia, the city where he was born on October 1, 1943. In fact, Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine correspondent Maralyn Lois Polak called Williams’s unpredictable rise “the inspirational success story of the century.” Williams was one of seven children of Willie—a meat cutter who worked at a local packing plant—and Helen Williams. Young Willie was extremely sickly as a child, and severe bouts of asthma kept him from participating in sports at Overbrook High School. Williams told the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine that he was “in and out of hospitals four times as a youth” and was given “last rites of the church three times.” He added: “I was the typical child you’d just pray would live to grow up.”
After graduating from Overbrook High in 1960, Williams worked briefly with his father in the meat packing plant. There he injured his hand so badly that he thought for awhile he might lose the use of it. In order to rehabilitate the fingers, he taught himself touch-typing. By the time he was twenty, the injury was healed, and he began to look for another job.
He found a niche as a patrolman in the Fairmount Park Guards, a special police force for Philadelphia’s sprawling city park system. Although members of the regular Philadelphia police force contemptuously called the park guards “squirrel chasers,” the work was not quite that benign. Fairmount Park fell prey to the same sort of crimes that other urban parks do—muggings, robberies, and even murders—and the park itself spread over a wide area and rambled through many of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Thanks to good grades on Civil Service examinations, Williams rose through the guard ranks to become a sergeant. He held that position when the park guards were incorporated into the city police force in 1972.
Williams was allowed to enter the city police at the rank of detective, roughly similar to the position he had held with the park guard. He had ambitions for further advancement, but that meant more Civil Service examinations, each one tougher than the last. Many of his evenings were spent pouring over the city’s laws and statutes in preparation for his captain’s exam. His wife even helped him with flash cards over the dinner table. Even so, he flunked his first test for captain and actually thought of leaving police work. He had mathematical ability, and he pondered a career in accounting or teaching.
Eventually, however, Williams did pass his promotional tests, and he moved through the most demanding forms of police work—narcotics detective, field supervisor, and finally to captain of the crime-infested North Philadelphia police district. In the last position, Williams “ingratiated himself with residents who found his open-door style refreshing,” reported Stephen Braun in the Los Angeles Times. Williams also found time to finish a two-year degree at a Philadelphia college and to take management courses at St. Joseph’s University and Harvard University.
All was not smooth sailing for Williams in Philadelphia, though. During his earliest years on the city police force, his open-door tactics were frowned upon by the hard-line, law-and-order toughs of the Frank Rizzo years. Rizzo was a colorful figure in Philadelphia politics for years, and he served as police commissioner with a heavy hand during the 1960s and 1970s. Williams told Braun that he detected racism in the police force even while still a park guard but decided to fight it by passing those tests and learning as much as he could about police work. He never felt comfortable with the swaggering presence Rizzo’s officers were allowed to exhibit.
As Braun explained, “The notion that Philadelphia’s police commissioner might export reform was once unthinkable. The force was investigated for systematic brutality by the U.S. Justice Department in the mid-1970s, then rocked by narcotics scandals in the mid-1980s.” Additionally, gangsters such as Nicodemo Scarfo and his crime family posed a perennial problem. But the biggest disaster for Philadelphia’s crime fighters came in 1985, when a protest group known as MOVE refused to leave a rowhouse in the city. Police dropped an incendiary bomb on the group’s home, sparking an inferno that killed eleven MOVE members and burned 61 row homes. Williams escaped the fallout from the MOVE fiasco because he was a captain in another district at the time.
Just as the Rodney King beating spurred changes in Los Angeles, the MOVE disaster of 1985 forced changes in Philadelphia. A new police commissioner, Kevin Tucker, was named, and a panel convened to implement reforms. The time was ripe for a reform-minded officer like Willie Williams to speak his mind. He advanced rapidly during Tucker’s tenure, moving from inspector to a leadership position with the department of civil affairs, and then to deputy commissioner.
Tucker was never a popular choice for police commissioner because he came from outside the force. In June of 1988, Philadelphia’s mayor Wilson Goode promoted Willie Williams to the rank of police commissioner, and a new era began in the city. Williams opened police mini-stations in the neighborhoods worst hit by crime and encouraged citizens to use them for reporting and protection. He demanded that desk-bound supervisors ride on patrol from time to time and demonstrated his dedication to this ideal by making arrests himself. Williams also promoted minority group staff members in record numbers.
Williams soon learned, however, that the job of Philadelphia police commissioner would require tough decisions. He first took heat in 1987 when an unruly crowd turned violent after a Philadelphia Eagles football game. And some of his officers were accused of excessive force to disperse a crowd of AIDS activists in September of 1991. Unlike Gates in Los Angeles, however, Williams promised to investigate all charges of brutality—and he did. Under his tenure in Philadelphia, officers found guilty of brutality were fired with full public notification.
Flander and Russell contend that through his three-and-a-half year tenure as police commissioner of Philadelphia, Williams “avoided any real controversies suffered by past administrations.” Indeed, Williams was so popular as commissioner that he even retained his post after Wilson Goode left office.
Like most of America, Williams first saw the videotape of the Rodney King beating on network television news broadcasts. Within a week he was using the footage in police classes as an example of what not to do in a highly emotional situation. Williams made no public comment about the incident at the time, but he watched events in Los Angeles with great interest. When he was asked to become a candidate for chief of police in that city, he embraced the opportunity with great enthusiasm. “Nice weather out there, that’s for sure,” he told Philadelphia magazine after he scored a 98 percent on his interviews for the job.
Williams was chosen to be the new LAPD chief over six other candidates—some of them black—all of whom had advanced within the Los Angeles system. By April of 1992 the decision was finalized, and Williams agreed to take up his duties the day Darryl Gates retired.
Many in Los Angeles hoped that Williams’s appointment would help to calm the citizenry during the jury trial of the officers involved in the King beating. Unfortunately, when the jury found the officers not guilty of excessive brutality, violence erupted in Los Angeles. For most of a week in late April of 1992, angry mobs—and opportunists—burned and looted, mostly in the troubled South Central Los Angeles district. The incident only increased the pressure on Williams. The Los Angeles public looked to him as a savior who would bring reforms and yet protect the innocent. Old-timers on the LAPD, however, viewed him as an outsider with scant knowledge of the city and its special needs. One survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that only twelve percent of the rank-and-file officers supported the appointment of Willie Williams.
During his swearing-in speech on July 1, 1992, Williams called upon the various ethnic and racial groups in Los Angeles to help him change the city’s plight. As quoted in the New York Times, the police chief pledged to “work as hard as I can to raise the level of morale, which has been hurt by the events of the last year.” He continued: “We in Los Angeles cannot begin the healing and the stabilization process until... we make peace with ourselves and each other.... As Martin Luther King once said, true peace is not merely the absence of tension. It is the presence of justice.”
Facing formidable odds, Williams hopes to bring crimeplagued Los Angeles back under control without resorting to brutal, unpopular tactics. “We who lead must stop rocking the ship, and begin steering the ship, and navigate it through some very difficult and troubled waters that lie just ahead,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “From this day forward, I will insist that we encourage an atmosphere where disagreement and dissent, diverse views and opinions, are taken as information and building blocks and not seen as seeds of career destruction and isolation.”
Black Enterprise, October 1992.
Christian Science Monitor, April 17, 1992.
Jet, May 4, 1992.
Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1992; April 16, 1992; April 17, 1992; April 26, 1992; April 27, 1992; July 1, 1992.
Newsweek, August 3, 1992.
New York Times, April 16, 1992; April 17, 1992.
Philadelphia, April 1992.
Philadelphia Daily News, April 16, 1992; May 1, 1992.
Philadelphia Inquirer, June 7, 1992.
Time, May 11, 1992.
U.S. News and World Report, April 27, 1992.
Wall Street Journal, April 16, 1992.
Washington Post, April 16, 1992.
"Williams, Willie L. 1943–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/williams-willie-l-1943
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