Willie Williams, the first African-American to lead the Philadelphia Police Department and the Los Angeles Police Department, where he lead in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots, died Tuesday night. He was 72.
Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. appointed Williams the Philadelphia Police Department's first black commissioner in 1988. He succeeded Kevin Tucker and paved the way for many other African-American leaders in the department, including current Commissioner Richard Ross and his predecessor, Commissioner Charles Ramsey.
"I remember most about his tenure that it was a historic appointment," former Mayor Goode told NBC10 on Wednesday. "He was the perfect person to be in that position as the first African-American police commissioner of the city."
Goode, who said he was so close with Williams that he considered him to be like family, recalled Williams as humble and soft-spoken, but forceful. He said a hallmark of Williams' tenure as the leader of the Philadelphia department was his ability to bring the police and community together.
"When other cities were experiencing differences between police and the community, Philadelphia was kind of calm," Goode said. "I think it was due to the leadership of Willie Williams, being in control and having that kind of interpersonal skill to talk to neighborhood leaders throughout the city."
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That skill caught eyes on the West Coast, and in the wake of the Rodney King riots in 1992, the Los Angeles Police Department recruited Williams to become commissioner there. Williams spent half a decade leading the LAPD. In 2002, he became head of federal security at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and settled in Atlanta.
Williams' daughter-in-law Valerie told the Associated Press that he died Tuesday night at his home in Fayettevelle, Georgia. She said he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Ross, Philadelphia's current leader, joined the force a year before Williams took over the department and was patrol partners with Williams' son, also named Willie Williams, who is now a lieutenant in the Philadelphia Police Department working in Mayor Jim Kenney's security detail. Ross echoed Goode's sentiments about Williams, saying he was fair, charismatic and committed to community policing.
Kenney in a statement on Wednesday said he was "deeply saddened" by Williams' death.
"He served this city with greatness, improving community police relations and breaking down barriers at Philadelphia's first African-American commissioner," Kenney said.
Ross said Williams served as an inspiration to him to rise through the ranks of the department.
"I'd seen that someone else had reached that pinnacle," Ross, who took over the department after Commissioner Charles Ramsey retired in January, said. "It was possible for me and others to do it as well. When you reach a milestone like that ... that just makes the barriers crumble for others as well."