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WE'LL GET BEHIND YOU WHEN YOU GET OUT FRONT, L.A. TELLS CHIEF

Behind his broad back, some call him "Fat Willie" or "The Stealth Chief."

Not very respectful titles for a man handed the thankless task of reincarnating the nation's most scrutinized police organization, a department openly contemptuous of civilians, most notably Rodney King.Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams is the first black man ever to lead the embattled department. He was hired in 1992, whisked from Philadelphia, where he was chief and a career cop.

Now, midway into his five-year contract, the city's Police Commission, which can renew Williams' $140,000-a-year contract at its discretion, and Mayor Richard Riordan have expressed lukewarm support. They want him to succeed, they say, but they wish he provided clearer direction for the roughly 8,000-member police force.

Williams is being investigated by the Police Commission, a civilian oversight panel, for soliciting free Las Vegas hotel rooms, Universal Studios tickets and misusing a department-issued cellular phone. He denies any wrongdoing.

"Some of the problems that people have with Willie Williams, it's a little bit of being the outsider and it's never going away," said the chief, the father of three grown children, the youngest a rookie policeman in Philadelphia.

"There's a strong core of support for me as chief of police here," Williams, 51, said in a lengthy interview with The Associated Press last week. "The folks who don't like me as an individual or me as the chief, or maybe because I didn't spend 30 years on the LAPD, are going to always complain."

And complain they do.

Department morale "has evaporated," says Dennis Zine, president of the police union. Poor equipment, substandard pay and rat-infested station houses don't help.

Worse, say many officers, is the constant barrage from defense lawyers in the globally reported O.J. Simpson murder trial. Defense attorneys portrayed LAPD detectives as shoddy workers and liars willing to plant evidence.

There are few things cops dislike more than disloyalty, and disloyalty is how many interpreted Williams' silence when he did not respond to the attacks in kind.

"It is our opinion around the station that he should be on television every afternoon, defending his department," said one high-ranking officer who refused to be identified. "He is the topic of conversation every day. There's a very strong feeling that he's a short-timer."

In the past few weeks, however, Williams fired back after Simpson lawyer Alan Dershowitz said on national television that police are trained to lie in court.

"It's difficult as the chief, because I'm part of the prosecution of this case," he said in the AP interview. "We can't go out and hold daily press conferences every day to refute what is being said in court."