Over the last decade, it’s possible that only smog has created more bad publicity for Los Angeles than Daryl Gates.
Our police chief’s episodic affronts to members of this city’s minority communities--to Latinos, to African Americans, to homosexuals, to Soviet Jews, to Salvadoran immigrants--have come to be regarded as something like brush fires, a cyclic natural disaster compounded by hubris and human folly.
There is no need to rehearse here the details of Rodney King’s brutalization at the hands of more than a dozen officers from the LAPD’s Foothill Division. Television has seen to that. Doubtless, the facts elicited by the County Grand Jury and by the Justice Department investigation Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh ordered Thursday will do still more.
But this case of police brutality is different from those that have gone before. For one thing, African Americans and Latinos are outraged by an extreme example of the official abuse they say is a fact of life in their communities. Confronted for the first time with a firsthand view of police misconduct, even those Anglos who do not share that experience are embarrassed.
The result, a dramatic erosion of confidence in Gates’ leadership, could be seen all over City Hall this week:
It could be heard on the lips of the community leaders who thronged to the microphone at the City Council’s Public Safety Committee’s hearing Tuesday. The common feature of their testimony was the word disgrace.
It could be heard in the comments of a mayoral confidant who said that whatever Tom Bradley may say about Charter amendments, he privately believes the chief ought to resign. Those sentiments were echoed--though again in private--by two members of the council with whom I talked, though both believe Gates would survive by taking refuge in the bunker of civil service.
Police Commissioner Melanie Lomax, the tough-minded labor lawyer who will help decide Gates’ fate, was less reticent. “The chief,” she said, “will have to convince me that he has changed. He has to take responsibility for what has taken place. I’m determined to find out whether there is any relationship between the chief’s aggressive and inflammatory posture and behavior of his officers. I suspect there is a marginal group of those officers who have taken Chief Gates’ comments as license to adopt a cowboy mentality.”
If he runs true to form, Gates will respond to such inquiries with disdain. I wonder, though, if he would feel the same if he had listened to the two veteran LAPD officers with whom I spoke. Both are men of long service. Unlike the 60 police officials who rallied to Gates’ defense Wednesday, neither is involved in administration or holds a commission.
According to their accounts, the affair already has divided the department.
Gates has taken the King case away from the department’s internal affairs division and handed it over to detectives from major crimes. The detectives have been put under intense pressure from a chief who, according to one officer, had “no concept what the hell he was talking about” when he demanded that the detectives file the case within hours. The obstacle of due process aside, the detectives have been frustrated by the district attorney’s absolute refusal to cooperate with the police in any way until after the grand jury finishes its work.
“The whole thing is screwed up,” the officer said. “All these little tin gods want their piece of flesh.”
Despite such resentment, that same officer said he is “sure a case can be made” for Lomax’s concern over Gates’ loose-lipped rhetoric. “After he says one of these things--like that stuff about shooting casual drug users--you people just kind of chuckle.
“This last thing about drunken Salvadorans is the same. To the police mind, that’s what they were: a couple of drunken Salvadorans sitting on the curb drinking beer, and there’s the chief telling it like it is.
“When Gates said that Mexicans are ‘lazy,’ you heard the guys talking among themselves and saying, ‘Well, how many Mexicans have you seen that you’d want to promote?’ That sort of stuff goes on.
“Gates has a lot of support in the rank and file. He is personable, fair and very supportive. He is personally very well thought of. There is a lot of grousing about management, but it doesn’t extend to him. It’s like he’s above that. But people in upper-middle management don’t always give Gates a full dose of reality, and the failure to do something about that is the chief’s real problem.”
The other officer agreed and speculated that the tone set by Gates’ comments might have had a particular resonance in the Foothill Division. “It’s sort of like a cowboy division,” he said. “They’re kind of out of the mainstream.”
There is another essential difference between the Rodney King incident and those that have gone before: Out in the streets, away from the bunker mentality of Parker Center, there is a sense that if the chief has to resort to civil service protection to save his job, he will have won nothing but his own survival.
I asked the officers whether they, like the city officials to whom I spoke, believe Gates ought to resign. “There’s nothing Gates likes better than a good fight,” one said. “He’s not going to roll over, especially not if he thinks he’s got some support. The only way he would leave is if he thought the department itself was taking a beating and that it would blow over if he left. Then, I think he would go.”
Is that the case? “I’m afraid it is.”
“My wife,” the other officer said, “asked me this same question when I got home. I told her I thought the chief should step down because I’m afraid he’s lost his effectiveness.”
Those are voices even Daryl Gates cannot afford to ignore. After four decades of attention to duty, he has one final obligation--to tender his resignation.