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.
And as to the Times’s contention that it was Gates’s desire that cops “stay in their patrol cars rather than fraternize with the enemy, to focus on arrests and sweeps rather than crime prevention,” this too is ahistorical. Chief Gates was faced with the task of confronting skyrocketing crime with a police department that barely grew during his time as chief. Consider: In 1978, when Gates was appointed as chief, the LAPD had just under 7,000 officers. That year there were about 37,000 violent crimes reported to the police, among which were 678 murders. By 1992, when Gates was forced to retire, the department had grown marginally to about 7,700 officers, but violent crime had more than doubled to almost 89,000, including 1,092 murders. The decision to maintain such a small police department in the face of this onslaught did not rest with Daryl Gates, but rather with the city council and then-Mayor Tom Bradley, whom the Times nearly deifies when reporting on his tenure in office. We stayed in our cars back then because we were racing from one shooting to the next, a fact that was all but ignored both at City Hall and in the offices of the Los Angeles Times. Far from being hostile to community-based policing, Gates encouraged it, but any success the program might have had was precluded by a chronic lack of manpower. I recall having to excuse myself from a community meeting in South Los Angeles when a man was shot just down the street. Such occurrences were fairly typical during the 1980s and early 1990s, yet few people outside the affected neighborhoods and LAPD seemed to care.
The Times reserves what is perhaps its harshest criticism of Gates for his role in the Rodney King turmoil of the early 1990s. Recall that in March 1991 King was violently subdued at the end of a high-speed chase in Pacoima, a section of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. Three police officers and a sergeant were tried in state court on various brutality charges, and when, on April 29, 1992, the jury acquitted the officers on all but one count (on which they did not reach a unanimous verdict), Los Angeles erupted in days of rioting, resulting in 53 deaths and billions of dollars in property damage.
On this score Chief Gates was certainly deserving of some criticism, though perhaps not with the level of scorn displayed in the Times’s editorial. I was at work in South Los Angeles on the day the riots began, and I was dumfounded when my coworkers and I were told to go home at the end of our regular shift. We who worked on the streets at that time had little doubt there would be trouble if the officers were acquitted, yet this concern was apparently not transmitted up the chain of command, and at my level of the department there was little evidence of serious preparation for what was to come. As I drove home that day, I saw smoke billowing up from numerous fires across South L.A., and as I watched the news on television that night I saw that the LAPD was clearly overwhelmed. I was back at work by midnight, and I spent the rest of that night and the next two dodging bullets and chasing looters.
But the Rodney King beating and its aftermath cannot be so easily distilled into what the Times would probably explain simply thus: “Blame Daryl Gates.” Former Washington Post reporter and Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon spent more than 700 pages detailing the case in his book, Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD, in my view the definitive history of that time in Los Angeles history. As Cannon makes clear, Gates was not without fault in the matter, but there is much blame to share with others.
In its eagerness to deride Daryl Gates, the Times even goes so far as to hold him responsible for things that went wrong long after he left the LAPD. “The Rampart scandal of the late 1990s,” says the Times, “in which dozens of officers from Gates’ beloved anti-gang unit were implicated in drug dealing, planting evidence, extortion and a host of other nefarious activities, stemmed directly from the failure by Gates’ successors to fully implement the recommendations of the Christopher Commission.”
This is not to excuse any of the misdeeds committed by those who dishonored the LAPD in the Rampart scandal, but to place the blame for any of it on Daryl Gates’s shoulders reveals more about the Times’s transparent agenda than it does about the former police chief. The Christopher Commission, named for prominent L.A. lawyer and future secretary of state Warren Christopher, was formed by Mayor Tom Bradley and charged with investigating the LAPD in the wake of the Rodney King beating. Its members, most emphatically Christopher himself, had a decidedly liberal slant, and it was apparent from the outset that it would seek to place as much blame for the LAPD’s troubles as possible on Daryl Gates and as little as possible on the mayor. It did not disappoint. Furthermore, the emphasis the commission placed on community-based policing even in the midst of out-of-control violent crime is reflective of the liberal mindset seen in the State Department during Christopher’s service as secretary, to wit, that the bad guys of the world (or the city) will be less bad if we will but treat them nicely.
Inconveniently for the Los Angeles Times, the Rampart scandal can just as easily be blamed on the LAPD’s quest for a level of “diversity” within the department that the Christopher Commission found lacking. Rectifying this came at the price of hiring minority applicants whose questionable backgrounds would have otherwise disqualified them from employment as police officers.
The Christopher Commission’s report (available here in pdf format) was, immediately upon its release, granted almost Delphic authority by the Los Angeles Times, and among its recommendations was that LAPD chiefs be stripped of their civil service protection and serve no more than two five-year terms in office. This recommendation was embodied in a city charter amendment which the voters passed in June 1992.
But for all the legal acumen represented on the Christopher Commission, there is one law its members failed to consider: that of unintended consequences. In making the police chief beholden to political interests, factors other than leadership ability and law enforcement expertise were weighed heavily in the ensuing selection processes, resulting first in the appointment of the affable but inept Willie Williams and later the capable but tyrannical Bernard Parks, under both of whose stewardship the LAPD suffered badly. Only after Parks was ousted and William Bratton appointed in 2002 did the LAPD begin to recover its footing and achieve the reduction in crime that persists to this day. But it is interesting to note that even the much lauded and politically savvy Bratton, when he saw the looming challenges posed by tough economic times, chose to quit the LAPD and save his own reputation rather than honor his contract and face those challenges.
Say what you will about Daryl Gates, he never would have quit under those circumstances.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Daryl Gates for dinner, a meal that stretched into more than five hours of conversation. I have not risen far in the LAPD, but rather than regard me as an inferior, he expressed an appreciation for how I chose to spend my career in law enforcement: by working on the streets of some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. I was honored to spend some time with him in the hospital during the last weeks of his life, and even as he declined into illness and frailty he expressed no bitterness at the way he was rousted from the police department he cherished. Right to the end, he continued to express his fondness and gratitude for those who proudly wear the LAPD badge, just as he did.
His detractors, like those at the Los Angeles Times, will never bring themselves to appreciate him, but for those of us who cut our police teeth under his leadership, Daryl Gates will now and always be remembered as The Chief. Rest in peace.