Daryl Gates: The LAPD Chief Who Stayed Too Long
Daryl Francis Gates, the chief who shaped the Los Angeles Police Department for better and for worse, was celebrated Tuesday by the rank-and-file officers whom he led and loved.
"He was the chief to police officers, truly America's police chief," said former Deputy LAPD chief Michael Hillmann at a funeral fit for a military hero at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Gates, 83, died last week from bladder cancer.
These remarks were an amazing tribute coming from Hillmann, who as a lieutenant in the LAPD's elite Metro unit in April 1992, vainly attempted to warn a key deputy of Gates that a riot was in the offing if police officers then on trial for using illegal force to subdue Rodney King were acquitted. Gates, who believed that convictions were assured, was unprepared for the riots that followed in which 54 people died, more than 2,300 were injured, and 862 structures were burned to the ground. Two months later, Gates resigned under pressure. Nonetheless, Hillmann still reveres him, a sentiment that is replicated throughout the LAPD for a chief who spoke up for his officers in bad times and good.
Speaking adoringly of Gates at the private service, current chief Charlie Beck recalled that Gates had led the LAPD when the department was small, the crime rate high, and the murder rate triple what it is today. "It was the most difficult of times [when] we policed by the thin blue line," Beck said. "For too long the city expected too much of too few." Beck said Gates rose to the challenge and led effectively because he respected the men and women of the LAPD. "The chief is dead," he concluded. "Long live the Los Angeles Police Department."
When Gates joined the LAPD in 1949, Los Angeles was the whitest and most Protestant of major American cities. When he retired in 1992, Los Angeles had become one of the most diverse cities on the planet. Today the city has a Latino mayor, and a Latino has been appointed as archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church. Los Angeles has the world's largest population of Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Filipinos, Koreans, Samoans, and Armenians outside their native countries. Non-Hispanic whites are a steadily declining minority of the population.
For many in Los Angeles, Gates was both a bridge to the future and a link to the past. He was a flawed, in some ways tragic, figure whose policies were often more progressive than his descriptions of them. His tongue was his greatest enemy, as he demonstrated after his appointment as LAPD chief on March 24, 1978. The next day, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Gates said, "The department has to reflect the character of the city it serves" and called for recruiting more African-American and Latino officers. Unfortunately for Gates, he also said that some Latino officers already on the force lacked the enthusiasm of their black counterparts. The sound bite that emerged from this colloquy was that Gates believed that Latinos were "lazy," a canard that dogged him throughout the rest of his career.
Then there was the time that Gates was giving his views on why some black criminal suspects had been killed or injured by use of the carotid artery chokehold, saying that it may have been because their "veins or arteries do not open up as fast as normal people." He had meant to say, he later explained, that he was talking about people of all races with "healthy" arteries, but his comment is cited to this day as evidence of racism. It is a view disputed by those who knew Gates, including this reporter. Gates believed in opportunity for everyone and was always conscious of his humble roots. His trips of the tongue not withstanding, Gates did not duck hard questions, and he stood up for his police force and his principles. Jim Newton of the Los Angeles Times, who ably covered the LAPD for many years and knew Gates better than I did, put it well when he wrote about Gates on latimes.com: "He was genuinely and refreshingly combative. There was nothing sneaky or evasive" about him.
On the other hand, there were many disconnects between what Gates said and what he did. Drug policy is one example. Gates created the Drug Abuse Resistance Program (DARE), which cooperates with schools to educate young people about the dangers of drug use. The program has spread to 50 states and more than a dozen countries and was cited Tuesday by police officers and educators alike as one of Gates' most significant accomplishments. In a local television report of the Gates funeral, however, DARE was mentioned only in passing. A TV anchor instead quoted a comment Gates had made in testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee that "casual drug users should be taken out and shot." Back in Los Angeles, Gates told fellow police officers that he was using hyperbole to emphasize the growing menace of drug-related crimes. The officers cheered.
They are still cheering. On Tuesday, hundreds of police officers in serried ranks saluted as the Gates casket, draped in the American flag, proceeded from the downtown police headquarters to the cathedral, where Cardinal Roger Mahony greeted the procession. Inside, the service began with the playing of a Frank Sinatra recording of his signature song, "My Way," appropriate for Gates. A succession of police officers said passionate farewells. When it was Hillmann's turn, he recalled that when an LAPD helicopter hovered outside Gates' hospital room on one of the final days of his life, he rose from his bed, put on his SWAT hat and stood at attention. Earlier, Hillmann recalled that Gates often told fellow officers: "You should never let me down, never let the people down."
Gates tried hard to live by this maxim. The son of an alcoholic father, he grew up in poverty in Glendale, near Los Angeles, joined the Navy at 17, and manned an antiaircraft gun on a destroyer in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he attended the University of Southern California on the GI Bill of Rights. Married, with a young daughter, he was hard-pressed to pay his bills and joined the LAPD because he needed a job. Bright and hard working, he rose rapidly through the ranks and became the driver for the legendary chief William Parker. This was instructional in more ways than one: Gates admired and would emulate Parker's devotion to his officers, but he was appalled to find that Parker was also a heavy drinker. Gates was not. As chief, he expected his officers to be sober and alert and in control of the situation at all times.
Parker was LAPD chief in August 1965, when a drunk-driving stop of a black motorist by a white California Highway patrolman escalated into the Watts riots. Gates, then a field commander, established a command post at a strategic location in the hope that a police presence would discourage rioting. At night, however, youths stoned police cars, and Gates did not have sufficient manpower to send out a patrol. He was forced to retreat. In the riots that raged for several nights, Watts was burned to the ground, with 35 people killed and more than a thousand injured. Most of the casualties were blacks.
The LAPD would learn many lessons from Watts, some of them wrong. The Watts riots had subsided by day and flared by night. When a jury in Simi Valley in April 1992 was deliberating on the fate of the police officers involved in the King beating, Lt. Hillmann urged the deployment of the Metro unit on the streets of South Central Los Angeles to discourage potential rioters. His request was denied by a deputy chief, who worked for Gates. The deputy chief, who well-remembered Watts, told Hillmann, "Riots don't happen during the daytime."
Parker, chief until his death in 1966, had transformed a once-corrupt department into a model of professionalism celebrated by the television show "Dragnet;" its creator, Jack Webb, became Parker's friend and promoter. The LAPD prided itself on doing more with less; the department responded to more calls than other big-city forces with twice or more the number of officers. Honesty was at a premium; taking any gratuity was a firing offense. Gates refined this model, and he was more sensitive than Parker to complaints about police brutality. But Gates had no use for community policing, which required more officers than the LAPD had available. He relied on blunter instruments. Gates was especially proud of the Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT), a heavily armed quasi-military unit designed to respond to street militants and in hostage situations.
SWAT was first deployed by Gates as an assistant chief in 1969 (when Chief Ed Davis was out of the country) in a raid on Black Panther headquarters that resulted in the arrest of a half dozen Panthers, three of whom were wounded. In later years, SWAT succeeded in a number of hostage rescues that ended without violence. Like DARE, the SWAT model has been widely copied with mixed results. Gates added an innovation that was at once effective and chilling: an armored vehicle equipped with a steel battering ram for knocking down the headquarters of suspected drug dealers.
When Gates became chief in 1978, the city's population was exploding. The Latino population would grow by two-thirds in the decade ahead; the Asian population would more than double. The LAPD remained relatively small, its growth restrained by Mayor Tom Bradley -- a veteran of the LAPD who also believed in Parker's dictum of a lean department -- and a City Council that was suspicious of a autonomous police chief who under the city charter was virtually a fiefdom to himself. The year Gates became chief was also the year that California voters passed Proposition 13, severely constricting municipal tax revenues. By the time of the 1992 riots, an investigating commission found afterward, officers were driving ancient and overworked vehicles and using antiquated equipment. This was hardly Gates' fault; he had without success advocated development of more sophisticated weapons than the heavy police baton that was used to batter Rodney King. The council resisted, both for fiscal and political reasons.
By 1984, when Los Angeles hosted the Olympics that Mayor Bradley had brought to the city, Gates was riding high. Although personally fearless, he worried about domestic terrorism, then barely a cloud on the horizon, and he was well aware that Sen. Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in Los Angeles on another chief's watch. Gates devised an elaborate security plan, and the Olympics proceeded without a hitch. Had Bradley and Gates retired in the 1980s, they would be remembered as success stories, with the Olympics as a highlight. Instead, Bradley, the only African-American to serve as mayor of the city, won fourth and fifth terms as mayor, while Gates stayed on as chief. Neither of them were prepared for the firestorm of controversy that enveloped the city after the videotaped beating of Rodney King in the middle of the night on March 3, 1991.
King, strong and heavily muscled as well as intoxicated, had led officers on a high-speed chase. When LAPD officers tried to handcuff him without hurting him, he threw them off his back. A sergeant shot King with a Taser gun, which fire cartridges with 50,000 volts of electricity. The Taser did not faze King, who charged in the direction of one of the officers. All these actions except the charge occurred before an amateur cameraman, on the balcony of an apartment near the scene, began what would become the infamous videotape of white police officers subduing a black man with a rain of 56 baton blows.
Gates, who had been away in Washington, D.C., saw the videotape the next morning. Although he would in later years, including at the funeral Tuesday, be described as a defender of the "Rodney King officers," that was not his reaction at the time. Instead, he was shocked when he saw the videotape, which had been delivered to the LAPD by a local TV station that had shown an edited version omitting King's charge because that portion of the tape was hazy. "It was a very, very extreme use of force-extreme for any police department in America," Gates wrote in his book Chief. "But for the LAPD, considered by many to be perhaps the finest...police department in the world, it was more than extreme. It was impossible." Gates said that the videotape made him "sick at heart."
The King videotape set in motion a series of events, including the appointment of an independent commission headed by attorney Warren Christopher, a future U.S. secretary of state. The commission found that Gates had failed in the command and control of the LAPD and called upon him to step down. He refused. Meanwhile, a state appeals court ignored its own precedents and granted a change of venue to the officers accused in the King beating. They were tried in nearby Simi Valley, home to many police officers, before a jury with no African-Americans. Many of the jurors had seen the edited tape on television; they were surprised when they learned that the unedited version showed King charging at one of the officers.
Neither Gates nor Bradley was prepared for what followed. The chief and the mayor, political opponents, were not on speaking terms, and the city had no cohesive plan for a riot. Both men assumed that the officers, or some of them, would be convicted. When they were not, the riot exploded. The LAPD had failed to seal off the flash point of the riots, and an unwitting truck driver, Reginald Denny, was pulled from his vehicle and beaten nearly to death by rioters. Gates had been all but retired before the riots, but had refused to step down while he was under political attack. On the evening of the riots, without having any idea of the dimension of the disturbance, he left his downtown police headquarters to speak at a fundraiser sponsored by opponents of a ballot measure that was aimed at police reform. It was the last straw for Gates' critics, who forced him to step down two months later, although he never acknowledged he had been fired.
As it turned out, it wouldn't have made any difference if Gates had stayed at his post. The riots were so quickly out of control that it would take the National Guard and outside agencies to assist the LAPD in putting down the deadliest urban uprising since the Draft Riots of the Civil War.
The riots were the harbinger of change. The city charter was revised, subjecting police chiefs to civilian control and term limits. Under Chief William Bratton, thousands of officers were added to the LAPD rolls; police training and equipment were improved. Bratton embraced community policing; the LAPD is no longer the lean-and-mean force of the Parker and Gates eras. But through all the changes there has been a constant on the LAPD itself: Gates remains valued by the rank and file as one of their own. To these officers, he remained "The Chief" until the day he died, and they are right in believing he was special. Charlie Beck, another LAPD chief who came up through the ranks, expressed the sentiments of his department when he said that Gates was a "one-in-a-million human being" who "changed the landscape of law enforcement throughout the world."
Lou Cannon is the author of "Official Negligence: How Rodney King and The Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD."