Former Los Angeles Police Department Chief Daryl Gates died of cancer on Friday at the age of 83. A long-running theme in his life was the deep mutual antipathy he shared with many — but by no means all — writers and editors at the Los Angeles Times. The Times published a 1,500-word editorial on the occasion of his passing, and one is not surprised to see they were no kinder to him in death than they were in life. He probably would have been disappointed had it been otherwise.
I am grateful that I had the opportunity to know Chief Gates for these past few years, and I here offer an alternative perspective to that presented in the Times, which in my view is a shameful and unfairly dismissive characterization of his life and his dedication to the city of Los Angeles, in whose police department he served for 42 years, 14 as its chief.
The Times editorial begins as follows:
On Daryl Gates’ last day as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1992, Times staff writer Sheryl Stolberg asked him how he thought history would view his tenure. “I think history will take care of itself,” he said.
By the time of his death at the age of 83, it had. Almost two decades after Los Angeles erupted in the worst U.S. rioting of the 20th century, a conflagration both ignited and unsuccessfully extinguished by Gates’ LAPD, the verdict of history is largely in — and if it suggests that Gates wasn’t necessarily guilty on all counts, there is no chance of a pardon. While an honorable man, a devoted public servant and a capable crime-fighter who might have made a decent police chief in an earlier era, Gates was a hidebound, egomaniacal figure who was so wrong for the job at the time he served in it that he nearly destroyed the city he was charged with protecting.
It must have caused the writer no little pain to allow that Gates was “an honorable man, a devoted public servant and a capable crime-fighter,” for he spent the remainder of the piece magnifying Gates’s faults and diminishing his accomplishments. No one would deny that Daryl Gates had a healthy, even outsized, ego, just as anyone who rises to a position of similar prominence almost invariably does. But to label him “egomaniacal” and “hidebound” and “wrong for the job” is to ignore the obstacles he faced during his career with the LAPD.
As the editorial notes, Gates worked for former LAPD Chief William Parker, though their use of the word “chauffeur,” like so much of the piece, is unfair in that it presents Gates as having served in some lowly, servile capacity. Like every LAPD chief since, Parker had a security detail, just as the mayor, city attorney, and district attorney do today. Gates was a member of that detail, and he shared with other members the task of driving Parker to his appointments, allowing the chief to conduct business while being shuttled around the city.
It was William Parker who as police chief confronted and uprooted entrenched corruption, both in the LAPD and in city government, and as Gates served under Parker he came to recognize the perils of undue political influence on law enforcement, the elimination of which was seen at the time as a much needed reform.
The Times goes on to lament that while the Los Angeles was changing during Gates’s early years as chief, he and the LAPD remained “much the same.” “[The city] experienced a crack cocaine epidemic early in Gates’ tenure that ravaged poor communities,” says the Times, “and gave rise to a new kind of murderous gang culture. Gates’ response was to turn the police force into an organization that even the most hardened criminals would fear.”
What, we might ask, is so objectionable about hardened criminals fearing the police? Though the influx of crack cocaine and the violence that accompanied it is often referred to metaphorically as an epidemic, it was not as though some spontaneous outbreak of disease had arisen through no one’s design. The cocaine “epidemic” was a consequence of decisions and actions made by criminals, and as police chief, Daryl Gates was asked to combat this crime wave without the added resources such an endeavor so manifestly required.
The Times’s editors criticize Gates for some of the LAPD’s innovations that were engendered by this outbreak of drug and gang violence. For example, they chide him for riding in what they erroneously describe as a “tank” outfitted with a battering ram during a 1985 raid on a suspected drug seller’s home. “With Gates in the passenger seat,” says the Times, “the ram smashed through the wall of the house, narrowly missing two women and three children who had been eating ice cream inside.”
I recall well the Times’s reference to the children and the ice cream in their contemporaneous coverage, as though Gates and his officers had flattened some nursery school rather than a drug den. “That, in a nutshell,” says the Times, “was the kind of policing Daryl Gates stood for: an officer in a tank, shielded behind steel walls from the community he serves, knocking down the wall instead of knocking at the door. … His officers were trained to bring overwhelming force to bear, to stay in their patrol cars rather than fraternize with the enemy, to focus on arrests and sweeps rather than crime prevention.”
Utter rubbish. First of all, I’ve been on hundreds of drug raids in my LAPD career, and I can say there are few moments more harrowing for a cop than those he spends prying open the door while serving a search warrant on a drug dealer. As fortifications inside such houses grew increasingly elaborate in the 1980s, it became more dangerous and more futile to use the hand-held entry tools we customarily employed. The resulting delays allowed dealers time either to arm themselves or to dispose of their wares by flushing them down a toilet or dropping them into the pots of hot grease that were routinely maintained on the stove. The armored car (as distinguished from a “tank”) was rarely used, but I can speak for many cops when I say I was only too happy to see it knock down a door or two if it spared me from the task of standing there exposed to gunfire for twenty minutes while I tried to break through the multiple layers of steel reinforcement that protected some gangster’s dope pad.