By Sheryl Stolberg
June 28, 1992
After all the hemming and hawing, the sparring with those "crummy little politicians" and the shadowboxing with reporters, Daryl Francis Gates leaves his job as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department today the way he always vowed he would: with his head defiantly held high.
For 14 often tumultuous, always interesting years, the name Gates has been synonymous with the LAPD.
The chief has shepherded his beloved department--"the finest in the world," he likes to say--through good times and bad. He has been at the helm through visits from presidents and a Pope and the golden moments of the 1984 Olympics, through the police shooting of a black woman named Eulia Love and the beating of a black man named Rodney G. King and the darkest hours of the Los Angeles riots, when his officers watched, helpless and embarrassed, as city blocks went up in flames.
He leaves revered by most--although not all--of his troops, and reviled by his critics. The man once hailed by President Bush as an "all-American hero" was besieged by autograph-seekers and admirers as he prepared to depart. At the same time, one city official branded him "megalomaniacal," and another chastised him for playing "cheap games" as he toyed with changing his retirement date.
Mayor Tom Bradley, his longtime nemesis, issued a blistering statement saying Gates had "brought Los Angeles to the brink of disaster just to satisfy his own ego" and is leaving "a sad and bitter legacy."
Perhaps no police chief in the nation inspired such extreme feelings of loyalty and disdain. And perhaps none has provided as much controversy and entertainment. Attorney Melanie Lomax, a Gates critic who resigned from the Police Commission last year, said: "Whatever you can say about Daryl Gates, he is not dull."
Yet as the Gates era in Los Angeles drew to a close, the city's attention-grabbing top cop--whose musings about retirement sometimes pushed international news off the front page--seemed eager to leave the spotlight behind. Still, he could not resist a Friday appearance on "Good Morning America," for which he had to get out of bed before 3 a.m., and one last hallway press conference--vintage Gates--as he left his office for the final time.
Technically on vacation, during his final days he took the liberty of skipping his last meeting with his bosses, the civilian Police Commission, with whom he did not get along. He cleared plaques from his office walls, had a birthday dinner with his longtime secretary, tended to routine police matters, such as the review of officer-involved shootings, and videotaped a sentimental, upbeat farewell message to his troops.
"Serve Willie Williams well," he told them, referring to the former Philadelphia police commissioner, about to become the department's 50th chief at 12:01 a.m. today. Williams will be formally sworn in on Tuesday.
He visited an injured Explorer Scout at a hospital in West Covina, signed so many copies of his newly published autobiography that his arm grew tired, and was feted at an emotional retirement barbecue attended by 5,000 of his closest friends, the people he calls the "LAPD family." There were no speeches, except the one he made, and few outsiders were allowed in.
He ordered his staff to turn down all requests for interviews from the local press, saying he has been interviewed so much he sees no point in talking anymore. But, summoning up his finest gentlemanly manner, he could not bring himself to turn a Times reporter away from his Montecito Heights condominium on Wednesday, despite his well-known dislike for the paper.
The previous day, caught off guard and bristling at the unexpected intrusion into his private life, he had said no, he would not talk. "It was a mistake," he declared curtly, emerging from his two-car garage at 7 a.m. dressed for his usual morning jog. "You shouldn't have come here. This is my home."
Then he jumped in his red Acura Legend and drove off. "I have people waiting for me," he said as he shut the car door.
Yet Wednesday, he relented. The 66-year-old chief looked tanned and fit, clad in red nylon jogging shorts and an LAPD T-shirt and white socks with no shoes. He offered his visitor a cup of coffee and perched himself on a cinder-block wall looking out at the San Gabriel Mountains.
And there, in the peaceful quiet of the early morning hour, punctuated only by the occasional barking of a neighbor's dog, America's best-known police chief reflected on his departure from the job that made him famous.
Gone was his cantankerous public persona--the "shoot-from-the-lip" style that has gotten him into trouble over the years for, among other remarks, referring to Latinos as "lazy" and saying that some blacks do not respond to the carotid chokehold the way "normal people" do. Such explosive utterances gave way, in that setting, to rare and private moments of introspection.
Gates spent nearly his entire adult life--43 years--with the LAPD. There is, he acknowledged, a certain sadness that comes with leaving after so many years, but also a sense of euphoria and, quite frankly, relief.
"It's a tremendous load off your mind. I think about it and I think, 'My God, suddenly I don't have to have a beeper, radio or a telephone within reach 24 hours a day. People don't have to know precisely where I am 24 hours a day. I won't be awakened at 2 a.m. . . . I won't have City Hall to wrestle with constantly.'
"I won't have to try to police the city with inadequate resources, trying to explain to my people and others why we can't do all the things that need to be done around here. I think about all that and I think, 'My God,' "--he chuckles, shaking his head--"it's not too bad. . . . The limelight has a lot of downsides, believe me."
Gates loves a good fight. And as is his wont, he could not resist taking a few last swipes at some of his favorite foes:
Mayor Bradley ("that dummy"); Police Commission President Stanley K. Sheinbaum ("He wants to be loved and respected" by the rank and file, but "he will never be"); former Assistant Chiefs David D. Dotson and Jesse A. Brewer ("I got sold out by some of my own people," Gates says, referring to their critical testimony before the blue-ribbon Christopher Commission that investigated the King beating), and the entire corps of lawyers for the Christopher panel ("They don't know their ass from a hole in the ground.")
His harshest criticism, as always, is reserved for The Times. He believes fervently that the paper's editors were out to ruin his good name by playing up police controversies. "You don't see it," he said to a reporter, "but there's a bias there."
Gates is a proud man, perhaps proudest of what he sees as the strength of his character. The past year--which saw his once-vaunted department fall into international disrepute, racked by charges of brutality and widespread calls for his resignation--has been, he said, a true test of his mettle.
"You never know who you are or what you are until you are put to the test. . . . I knew I was capable of withstanding a lot of pressure, but this year taught me I was capable of withstanding a helluva lot of pressure from all sides, from every quarter.
"In a sense, I regret it all happening (the King beating and its fallout) not because of me, but because of what it has done to the Police Department and what it has done to the city. But personally, I really believe that it allowed me to leave with something I might not have had before, and that's a well-defined character--not just being a stubborn, combative individual, but somebody who has enough strength and character to stay and battle it out.
"I wouldn't go quietly and police officers, they loved that. That's what they needed to get them through this period. Somebody to fight for them, somebody to fight back."
He says he feels good about himself. Although detractors such as Bradley and City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky say Gates' steadfast refusal to retire earlier has kept the city mired in racial bitterness, Gates believes that by staying, he has helped hold Los Angeles and its beleaguered police force together.
Former Police Commissioner Lomax complains that Gates had to be "almost dynamited out of office," and the conventional wisdom in some quarters is that he has been forced from the job in disgrace. But the chief does not see it that way. He always said he would leave on his own terms. "And I did," he insists. "Absolutely. All the way."
Nor does Gates intend to fade into the background once he no longer wears a badge.
He has a lot of things he wants to say--particularly about crime and politics in America--and he intends, in his inimitable way, to say them. His public teasing about running for political office is just that--teasing, he says.
But he will serve as a fill-in radio talk show host for a week and narrate a television documentary on crime. And, with no fewer than five agents already banging at his door to represent him, he hopes to be a frequent figure on the lecture circuit.
"I'm not going to be a Nixon and say you won't have me to kick around anymore," he said, "because I'm going to be around."
For Los Angeles, life without Gates may be simpler and calmer. For the LAPD, however, it may grow more complex, at least in the immediate future.
The chief's departure marks more than the end of his own era. It marks the end of an era that began four decades ago when Gates' mentor, William Parker--who was sworn in as chief in 1950, a year after young Daryl Gates became a policeman--fashioned the force into a spit-and-polish, paramilitaristic institution.
Gates carried out Parker's legacy. He created SWAT--the Special Weapons and Tactics team--which has been replicated nationwide. He used the battering ram to bash in doors of suspected crack dens--much to the dismay of civil libertarians, who said the LAPD used the tool indiscriminately.
One of the most notorious episodes in his tenure involved the now-defunct Public Disorder Intelligence Division, which was abolished in 1983 after revelations that police had spied on political figures, revolutionary communists and LAPD detractors such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
He pushed "proactive" policing--the idea that police officers should not just sit around in doughnut shops, but should be an aggressive presence on the streets, looking to prevent crime before it happens.
"There was a time," said U.S. Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who served on the Police Commission that hired Gates as chief, "when that might have been what the city needed. It certainly isn't what it needs now."
As the department shifts toward the more community-oriented style of policing recommended by the Christopher Commission, some say Gates failed to recognize that his time had passed.
"The fact that he hung on did great damage to his own reputation," said Councilman Yaroslavsky. "He wasn't attuned to the changes that were taking place under his nose."
Only time will tell how history will judge Daryl Gates. His foes say that his accomplishments--and most acknowledge that there are many--will forever be eclipsed by the dark shadows cast by the King beating, the Christopher Commission report and the LAPD's performance during the riots, including Gates' decision to attend a fund-raiser in Brentwood as the violence broke out.
They complain that he built a department based on an attitude of "Us vs. Them," in which citizens--particularly minorities--have been mistreated for years, as evidenced by the March 3, 1991, King beating and the shooting of Love that took place 12 years earlier. They point as well to the millions of dollars the city has paid in legal awards to victims of police brutality.
"He failed to communicate with the African-American community, the civil liberties community," said Ramona Ripston, who heads the Southern California ACLU. "There were things that we could have done together that wouldn't have solved the problems but may have made them less. Instead we ended up as warriors."
Gates' supporters counter that time has a way of evening things out, that 5, 10 or 20 years from now, Daryl Gates will once again be the fair-haired boy of the LAPD.
"He's got big shoes to fill and don't forget that," said City Council President John Ferraro.
"Truman keeps occurring to me," said retired LAPD Deputy Chief William Booth, who served as Gates' chief spokesman for 13 years. "At the time that Truman was President, a lot of people didn't appreciate the things that he did. I think now, as we look back, history is treating Harry Truman in a more realistic context."
In the morning calm outside his home, Gates refuses to make any such predictions. "I think," he said, "history will take care of itself." And then the telephone rings, and the larger-than-life chief of the Los Angeles Police Department--a hero to some, a villain to others--pads off in his stocking feet to answer it.
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