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Willie Williams’ tumultuous tenure at the helm of the LAPD




File: Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams answers reporters questions during a news conference in front of the bullet scarred Bank of America in the North Hollywood section of the city in Los Angeles on Saturday, March 1, 1997, following a wild shootout through local streets that started as the bank was being robbed. Williams was the first African-American police chief in both Philadelphia and Los Angeles. He took over from LAPD Chief Daryl Gates following the 1992 riots.
File: Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams answers reporters questions during a news conference in front of the bullet scarred Bank of America in the North Hollywood section of the city in Los Angeles on Saturday, March 1, 1997, following a wild shootout through local streets that started as the bank was being robbed. Williams was the first African-American police chief in both Philadelphia and Los Angeles. He took over from LAPD Chief Daryl Gates following the 1992 riots.
John Hayes

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Former LAPD Chief Willie L. Williams has died at the age of 72. 

Williams was LA’s first African-American police chief. He began his tenure in the wake of the Rodney King riots in 1992 when tensions between law enforcement and communities color had reached a boiling point. 

For five years Williams would try to bring the LAPD the reforms it needed, but he faced a deluge of criticism and rancor until 1997 when the Police Commission rejected his bid for a second term. 

For more on the life and legacy of Chief Williams, Take Two spoke to journalist Joe Domanick, author of the book, "Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing."

In terms of people to succeed Daryl Gates, there were all sorts of up-and-coming LAPD insiders. Instead, they chose Willie Williams, who was an outsider from Philadelphia. Why him?

First of all, they wanted an African-American chief, because the African-American community had borne the brunt of the brutality of the LAPD and the arrogance of the LAPD all these years and had been at the forefront of trying to get the LAPD reformed. And they wanted an outsider because the felt that anybody who was in the LAPD was tarnished by Daryl Gates, and they wanted someone who was the un-Daryl Gates, and Willie Williams fit that bill. 

You include in your book that the first impression that one LAPD officer had when Willie Williams shows up at the police academy — it was not a great first impression. What happened?

The LAPD was extremely unhappy that an outsider had been chosen, they weren’t happy that he was an African-American, and they particularly despised the fact that Willie Williams was a big, ample guy … He was not in their estimation anything near what an LAPD officer should be. Secondly, his chief rival for the job was Bernard Parks, who would succeed him. And Bernard Parks wanted very much to become the first African-American chief. [He] felt he deserved it and had no respect for Willie Williams … He started immediately to undermine him.

Looking back at the tenure of Willie Williams, what do you see as his greatest strengths? His biggest accomplishments?

Well, it’s hard to say what his accomplishments were because they were so few. One of the things that he did do — when he came to Los Angeles — he was treated as a conquering hero, come to save Los Angeles and the LAPD from themselves. He participated in over 200 meetings with various groups from around the city, said all of the right things and was enormously popular, but it quickly became apparent that he was totally — Peter principle — out of the job. [It] was way beyond his capacity to do a thorough reform of the Los Angeles Police Department — an extremely difficult job at that time, and the department just kind of drifted along ...

Press the blue play button above to hear the full interview.