Willie L. Williams, 72, an Overbrook native who became the first African American to head the Philadelphia and Los Angeles Police Departments and a major figure in law enforcement in the 1990s, died Tuesday night at his home in Fayetteville, Ga.
Mr. Williams' sister-in-law Pat Odoms said pancreatic cancer was the cause.
Mr. Williams, who began his career in 1964 as a Fairmount Park guard, was appointed Philadelphia's police commissioner in 1988 and served for four years. He earned widespread praise for improving police-community relations, increasing diversity in the upper ranks, and decentralizing the department.
In 1992, he was recruited to become the chief of Los Angeles' 8,000-officer department - the second largest in the United States, and plagued at the time by brutality, racism, and mismanagement. Just weeks before Mr. Williams took over, riots erupted after four police officers were acquitted of excessive force in the violent arrest of Rodney King.
Mr. Williams left the LAPD in 1997 after clashing with other city officials. He later became federal security director at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, the nation's busiest airport.
Police Commissioner Richard Ross, who met Mr. Williams as a rookie officer in 1989, said he "paved the way for a lot of people who served alongside him, people who were my predecessors," including Commissioners Richard Neal and Sylvester M. Johnson.
"There were young officers who realized that as a result of his achievements, it was possible for us to do [something] similar," Ross said.
Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr., who appointed Mr. Williams, said Wednesday that he was "a humble man, a very intelligent and streetwise man who had tremendous interpersonal skills."
"He occupies a very, very special place in the history of this city, and will go down in history, in my book, as one of the best police commissioners this city has ever seen," Goode said.
Willie Lawrence Williams was born in Philadelphia on Oct. 1, 1943. The son of a carpenter who also worked as a meat-packer, he was the oldest of seven children raised in the Overbrook section.
As a child, Mr. Williams helped out at a grocery store, and had a paper route delivering the Daily News and the Evening Bulletin. He graduated from Overbook High School, and later earned an associate's degree in business administration from the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science.
On Feb. 10, 1964, Mr. Williams became a Fairmount Park guard. After the park police were merged with the city's police department, Mr. Williams quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming deputy commissioner and a protege of Commissioner Kevin M. Tucker.
In 1988, at Tucker's recommendation, Goode appointed Mr. Williams to lead the department when Tucker took an executive position at PNC Bank.
The appointment was met with enthusiasm from senior officials as well as the rank and file. Goode said Wednesday that he had worked with Tucker for several years to prepare more black officers to be ready for the top job, and that Mr. Williams was "perfect" for the role when the time came.
During Mr. Williams' tenure, he established mini-police stations in neighborhoods to decentralize the department, and doubled the number of black officers with the rank of captain or inspector. He also worked to fortify police-community relations, which had become strained by instances of excessive force in the 1980s.
Mr. Williams learned the importance of such relationships while working in the 22nd District in North Philadelphia, he said in a 1991 interview. "I walked up to Ridge and Columbia, and went into each store and introduced myself. I talked to the people and got to know them," he said. "That's when I learned that you have got to get out and meet with people."
Former Mayor Ed Rendell said Wednesday that he retained Mr. Williams as commissioner after being elected in 1992 because of Mr. Williams' strong reputation across the city.
Mr. Williams "bridged a gap that was omnipresent for years and years, [with] minority communities thinking the police were not their friends," Rendell said.
Rendell said Mr. Williams' bond with African American communities was evident after the riots in 1992 following the King verdict. As violence erupted in cities across the country, Rendell asked Philadelphia clergy to remind residents that such brutality had not occurred under Mr. Williams' leadership.
"That day and that night, when most cities burned, we had less violence" than the same date a year earlier, Rendell said. "I attribute that all to the relationship that Commissioner Williams had with the African American community."
Just a few weeks after those riots, Mr. Williams left Philadelphia to become chief of the LAPD. He had accepted the position before the riots, but navigating the aftermath became a central pillar of his administration in Los Angeles.
He managed to increase the size of the department, and implemented some community policing initiatives similar to those he achieved in Philadelphia.
But another constant of his tenure was discord with other city officials.
He frequently clashed with the City Council and with Mayor Richard Riordan, who took office a year after Mr. Williams. In 1997, after five years as chief, Mr. Williams accepted a $375,000 severance package to retire before the end of his contract, which the city's civilian Police Commission had declined to renew.
In 2002, Mr. Williams was appointed to oversee security at Atlanta's airport. Odoms, his sister-in-law, said he had retired several years ago and was living in Fayetteville, outside Atlanta, with Evelina, his wife of 49 years.
In 1996, Mr. Williams published a book, Taking Back Our Streets: Fighting Crime in America, with coauthor Bruce B. Henderson.
He served as president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives in 1991-92.
Even after he moved from the city, Mr. Williams maintained his tie with Philadelphia: One of his three children, Willie Williams III, is a lieutenant on Mayor Kenney's security detail.
In an interview Wednesday, the younger Williams described his father as a calm, thoughtful man who taught him to view policing as a service rather than a job.
"He was just a constant, steady force," he said.
John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, said Wednesday that the younger Williams "had a very good teacher in his father."
"There are highly respected bosses out there," McNesby said, "and Willie Williams was one of them."
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Williams is survived by a daughter, Lisa; another son, Eric; two brothers; two sisters; his mother, Helen S.; and nieces, nephews, and grandchildren, Odoms said.
Funeral services were being arranged Wednesday.