LAPD’s First Black Chief
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is one of the most famous and largest police departments in the United States. The department has investigated some of the most unspeakable and historic crimes in the country, including the gruesome Tate murders committed by the Manson Family, the case of Efren Saldivar, a respiratory therapist who dubbed himself the “Angel of Death,” and even the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. But the city and its police department encountered a new level of turmoil in the early 1990s, when it was rocked by riots after the violent arrest of Rodney King. In the eyes of the public, the LAPD was at fault for the entire incident, and Police Chief Daryl Gates stepped down.
But with one chief’s exit came another’s rise. Willie L. Williams, already a notable police commissioner in Philadelphia, came to Los Angeles to fulfill the role of chief and work toward a goal of building bridges between its police department and a battered and broken community. Williams’ appointment to office marked his place in history as the first Black chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, and added to his legacy of leading cities with measured temperament in times of chaos.
Williams acted as chief in LA from 1992 through 1997; his primary goal was to create a positive image of the department and close the rift between the police and Black neighborhoods that was created by the violent arrest of Rodney King in 1991. He persevered through a difficult tenure with the LAPD and was at odds with many members of the Los Angeles Police Commission appointed by newly elected mayor Richard Riordan. Williams was concerned with Riordan’s pledge to add 3,000 officers to the LAPD’s ranks, and instead lobbied for internal reforms to reshape officer training and discipline recommended by the Christopher Commission in 1991 in response to the Rodney King incident. Although he also often found himself at odds with the LAPD rank-and-file, he was by far was the most popular official in Los Angeles at the time, and was credited with restoring a sense of confidence within the department. He did this by creating an emphasis on the relatively new concept of community policing—an initiative focused on creating greater trust and partnership between the community and the officers that serve it, shifting the view of law enforcement officers from hunters of criminals to community servants. He also addressed sexual harassment and discrimination issues within the department, and even appointed the LAPD’s first-ever female commander.
In 1996, Williams published “Taking Back Our Streets: Fighting Crime in America,” co-authored by Bruce Henderson, which described Williams’ philosophy of community policing and his efforts to revive and retrain a demoralized police force. When asked by the LA Times to reflect on his tenure as chief he said, “When you’re a chief of police, when you’re a leader, you have to do what you think is right.” Willie L. Williams died in April 2016 at his home in Fayette, Georgia. He was 72 years old.
Black Trailblazers in Blue is created in partnership between the National Law Enforcement Museum and the National Black Police Association to celebrate the triumphs of African American leaders in Law Enforcement.