Gates died at his Dana Point home after a short battle with cancer, the LAPD announced.
A proud emblem of progress to some, he was a disturbing symbol of stagnation to others. When the city went up in flames over the acquittal of four white officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King, he was castigated as a leader out of touch with the changing realities of the city, yet to the end he remained righteous about his authority to police it.
Faced with a proliferation of illegal drugs and street violence, he hammered gangs with police sweeps and broke into crack dens with a steel battering ram on an armored vehicle. He made no apologies for declaring that casual drug users should be shot.
By turns charming and brash, articulate and tactless, he generated controversy with gaffes about Latinos, blacks and Jews, most famously with a remark about blacks faring poorly under police chokeholds because their physiology was different from that of "normal" people. Fiercely loyal to his rank and file, he clashed frequently with elected officials, particularly when they slashed his budget or meddled in department discipline. He vowed he would never be bullied by "crummy politicians."
Gates "fought vigorously to make sure the chief's duties were not encroached upon. That comes from understanding the struggles Bill Parker went through moving the department out of corruption," said City Councilman and former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks. He was referring to William H. Parker, the tough, reform-minded chief in the 1950s and '60s, who became Gates' mentor.
Parks said it was important to remember that the vilification of Gates after the King beating was not universal and that his accomplishments as chief mattered to large segments of the city long after he left the department.
"If you go to areas of the Valley, police organizations, officers' funerals . . . he gets the loudest ovation," Parks noted recently. "I've never seen a situation where . . . 18 years after retirement, officers who never worked with him cheer him as chief of police."
Yet others just as vehemently argue that Gates' strengths were outweighed by his weaknesses, particularly his failure to evolve with a region transformed by demographic explosions. Between 1980 and 1990, the population of Latinos in Los Angeles County grew by 62.2%, and Asians and Pacific Islanders by 107.5%. Meanwhile, the white population was contracting, dropping by 8.5%.
Although the African American population grew far more slowly during that decade, its political leadership had matured. Los Angeles had black representatives in Congress, the state Legislature and the City Council. In 1973, Tom Bradley, the former LAPD lieutenant and councilman, united a diverse coalition of constituencies to become Los Angeles' first African American mayor. Gates had a fractious relationship with Bradley throughout his tenure as chief.
"This L.A. was a changing city. . . . He never made the adjustment to the new L.A.," Ramona Ripston, the longtime head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said recently of Gates.
In 1991, the videotaped beating of King was replayed around the world, shattering the carefully nurtured myth that the LAPD of "Dragnet" fame -- professional, honest and humane -- never stooped to such behavior. Gates was slow to criticize his officers' handling of the incident and was missing from his command post when the officers' acquittal provoked the worst urban violence in decades, causing at least 53 deaths and more than $1 billion in property damage. With characteristic defiance, he rejected the inevitable calls for his resignation. It was not the first time that critics had demanded his ouster, but it would be the last.
Gates' combative style can be traced to a hardscrabble childhood in Glendale, where he was born Aug. 30, 1926. When the Depression hit a few years later, his father, a plumber, took to drinking and frequently disappeared from home. His mother found a job in a dress factory, leaving Gates and his two brothers, Lowell and Stephen, to fend for themselves.
Police often barged into their ramshackle home looking for the senior Gates, whose debts and alcoholic behavior got him into trouble. The harsh treatment of his father gave Gates a dim view of law enforcement as "just a plague on society," he wrote in his 1992 memoir, "Chief: My Life in the LAPD." He had so little respect for the police that when he was 16 he punched an officer for writing him a parking ticket and was hauled to jail. The charges were dropped when he reluctantly apologized.
In 1943, after graduating from Franklin High School in Highland Park, Gates joined the Navy and served two years as "a plain old seaman" on a destroyer in the Pacific. After his discharge, he enrolled at Pasadena City College and married a classmate, Wanda Hawkins. He was taking pre-law courses at USC when he learned that she was pregnant. Unsure how he was going to support a family, he did not greet the news happily.
When a friend suggested that he join the Los Angeles Police Department, he said there was no way he would ever become "a dumb cop." He changed his mind when he realized that earning the then-considerable sum of $290 a month to train at the Police Academy while continuing his USC studies was too good to refuse. On Sept. 16, 1949, he joined the force.