Daryl F. Gates: Clear blue

At 82, Daryl F. Gates still looks as if he could pass the training physical for the Los Angeles Police Department, which he joined as a rookie 60 years ago and ran as chief for 14 years. When he says that his name was on the front page of The Times more than any other Californian during those years, he's probably right. Gates made headlines because he made waves. His legendary set-tos with politicians and the Police Commission were combustible theater. His tenure as chief overlapped Tom Bradley's as mayor, and there was no love lost between the two; by the 1992 riots, they weren't on speaking terms. Gates' LAPD career carried him from driver for Chief William H. Parker to Parker's right- hand man and heir. He was the last chief to earn the job through the civil service system; since Gates, chiefs have been appointed, with term limits. Now there's talk of lifting those term limits so the current chief, William J. Bratton, could stay on for five more years -- making his tenure one year longer than Gates'. When we met, he brought me a cup of Starbucks, and before I asked the first question, he referred to a 1982 Times story about his plan to ban one of two LAPD chokeholds. In seven years, 16 people had died in police chokeholds, 12 of them African American. Gates told The Times then he suspected some blacks had a medical condition that made them more susceptible than -- and this stirred an outcry for his resignation that never disappeared -- "normal people."

I'm going to use two tape recorders because I don't trust machines.

[The 1982] Times reporter really did me a very great injustice, and from that point on, I recorded everybody.

Obviously I didn't do a good job explaining myself. That was almost the most painful time of my time as chief, because it was totally out of context from what I had intended. And since that time, science has proved what I said is true. We had gone to doctors -- I had an assistant chief who did the research and that idiot wouldn't come forward and verify [what] he had found. It was a painful thing.

What they hit me on was "normal." I meant it just as you have a "normal" temperature. That became, "Gee, Chief, are we driving black and normal cars?" It was hard for me. I was, quite frankly, very well liked in the black community. Even the gang members liked me. I'd roll up in a gang area; they'd say, "Hey, Chief, how are you? Good to see you." I'd scheduled a talk to some kids in an elementary school in the black community. And [the principal] called and told my secretary, "We'd rather not have the chief." That really hurt, really hurt. Then I got all the activists coming down and yelling at me -- all because of The Times.

Do you still subscribe?

Oh, yeah. There were great people [at The Times] like our cartoonist, [Paul] Conrad. He and I didn't agree on anything, but we went to baseball games together. This was a world-class newspaper, and I see it now and it's just very sad. But I get it, and I read it every day.

Even people who didn't like you sympathized about your son, Scott, and his years of drug problems.

I got thousands of letters, horribly pathetic situations like mine. The havoc that drugs have played on our population and our young people, it's horrible. There's hardly a family out there during that period of time who hadn't had a brother, father, son, daughter who got hung up on drugs. [Scott] has been clean for quite some time, but here's a young man who had everything going for him. He was big and handsome and athletic, and drugs just killed him. I probably spent a fortune on him -- in and out of rehabilitation, the personal tragedy, the difficult times with him. He was clean for about 12 years and doing pretty well, and then went back into it for a while, and now he's back out and OK, but he's just devastated his life and those around him.

You first took the chief exam in 1966. Just what was it about the job?

When you come on the department and you look at the chief's job and you look at the guy who is chief -- it's like God, Parker was -- and you look at all the other jobs in law enforcement, and you think to yourself: I wouldn't want to be head of the FBI; I wouldn't want to be anything else but chief of the LAPD.

I heard that one of your first orders as chief was "You don't have to wear those hats anymore" -- and the rank and file loved you for that.

When I was assistant chief in operations, I'd roll up on a call and I'd see these officers run back to the car and put their hats on: Hats are part of the uniform. These poor officers were diverting their attention from the incident because they're concerned about not wearing their hats. So when I became chief, I said the hats go.

One other thing: I used to go to these [law enforcement] memorials. I'd look at the sea of chiefs out there, and they all looked like admirals or generals, lots of gold braid going up their sleeves, and I'd think, "Jesus kee-riminy." When I became chief, I went to my locker and I brought my dress uniform out to Mary, my secretary, and I said, "Give this away. I'm a Los Angeles police officer. I love the uniform of the Los Angeles police officer."

If you look at chiefs now, in almost all the states and the nation, you'll see them wearing [plain] uniforms. I'm proud of many things I did and a lot of things I started, but that's one thing I'm really proud of that I've never gotten credit for.

You talk a lot about Chief Parker integrating the LAPD.

I knew his thoughts; I listened to him speak all the time. There wasn't a racist bone in his body; there really wasn't. If you go back and look at the LAPD, Parker's the one who integrated it. But more significantly, Parker's implementation of very, very tight discipline meant if you did something wrong, if there was a complaint, it was investigated. That wasn't true before. Before Parker, it was a department that had some significant racists in it. Parker's a guy who wanted to make sure policing [was] the same all over the city. He really believed that by the turn of the century, the country would be so integrated that there would be a black president. He believed that.

Did he think it'd be Tom Bradley?

Bradley was a very bright star in the Police Department, very bright. He made sergeant very quickly; he had great assignments. But he sold out the department in one of those assignments. He went to several meetings and really bad-mouthed the LAPD, bad-mouthed Parker. At that time, Parker had a pretty inclusive intelligence system, and so Parker knew exactly what Tom had said at those meetings. Instead of pointing out all the good things about the department, he emphasized the negative and [was] just undermining what Parker was doing.

How well do you think you did with integrating the department?

Everyone wanted to force the issue; [that was] the worst thing you could do in my judgment. The [1980] consent decree was terrible because [it] put a hat on everybody who's black, everybody who's Hispanic and every woman who comes in. They'd say, "The reason he got in [is] because of that consent decree. He didn't do it on his own." The consent decree was really a quota system. I'd tell everybody who got promoted, "The one thing I want you all to understand is that when you see somebody who's appointed a sergeant or a lieutenant or a captain, it's because they did it on their own. They made it because they were able to." You could just see the pride.

What do you think of the Christopher Commission reforms?

The Christopher Commission, in my judgment, is perhaps the biggest fraud that's ever been perpetrated on this city. [The reforms] were designed for a specific purpose and that was to get rid of me. Almost every recommendation that they made, I'd implemented most of them, and those I couldn't implement cost money or required a meet-and-confer by the union.

How do you think the LAPD has changed since you were there?

I see some of these guys, they keep saying, "Oh, Chief, good to see you." They keep saying, "You're still the chief," and I say, "How long have you been on this department?" and they say, "Five years." I say, "You don't even know me." They say, "Yeah, we know you, you're still the chief."

I'm impressed by the kids who come on and the things they do. I think they do a marvelous job. I think the city's blessed to have the kind of people who continue to come on the Los Angeles Police Department. I've stayed away from criticizing things in the department -- once in a while I get rankled and maybe say something, but I really have tried hard.

Do you think because you were so outspoken and, as you say, a target, that you were indirectly responsible for the re-politicizing of the chief's office?

When you do away with the [civil service] system for the selection of a chief of police, you immediately bring politics into the Police Department. And that's exactly what you don't want -- that's what the city spent years getting rid of. Bratton was selected through politics; he's joined at the hip to the mayor.

As long as the job's already been politicized again, should the police chief be elected like the sheriff?

On the one hand, no -- the chief needs to represent all [the city]. On the other hand, maybe yes -- that is the evil of the system today.

I see almost nothing in your office about your years in public life except a "Gates for Governor" button.

[He laughs] Well, there's that little flirtation with politics, and I backed off. I didn't want to run for office.

What should they name new police headquarters?

[Laughs] My prediction is it'll never be named Parker Center, which is a shame. Parker did more to professionalize law enforcement, not only here but throughout the country, than any other single guy. He deserves to have the building named after him.

patt.morrison@latimes.com.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.

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