AFTER THE RIOTS: THE SEARCH FOR ANSWERS : Angry and Weary, Gates Continues to Parry Criticism

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a tense night soon after the 1965 Watts riots, a squad of Los Angeles police officers responded to reports of a skirmish in the curfew zone. Intimidated by the crowd, the officers held back. Then a young commander by the name of Daryl Gates arrived on the scene.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times 17 years after the incident, a member of the LAPD's SWAT team still remembered the way Gates quickly and forcefully defused the situation.

"That was the first time I ever saw a high-ranking police official come to the scene personally and say something strong, rather than stand back and look confused . . . " said Ron McCarthy, a sergeant at the time.

In the 27 years since Watts, Daryl Francis Gates' take-charge, battering-ram approach to law enforcement carried him straight to the top of the LAPD.

Since Gates took control of the department in 1978, his jut-jawed image and tough public statements have projected a single subtext: The disciplined, aggressive, thin blue line of cops he commands are all that protect the city's innocents from criminal anarchy.

Last week, when the city erupted in violence, cynics across the political spectrum figured the chief had been handed a well-timed career capper.

But now, in a startling flip-flop of public perception, the man often criticized as too gung ho finds himself publicly flogged for indecision and timidity. In what might have been his parting moment of glory, the most macho cop in America is being portrayed as a wimp.

Friday, Gates held his first press conference since the King verdict. It was, as expected, a high-pressure media circus complete with a now-familiar character outside--the guy with the rainbow hair and the sign: "Gates is a Stupid Clown."

Gates stood his ground. Flanked by uniformed officers, and armed with internal memos, training manuals and comparisons to the military's handling of Operation Desert Storm, he fended off--or evaded--reporters' questions without breaking a sweat.

Calls to Gates' press office on Thursday, the day The Times editorialized that the chief should step down fast, elicited undisguised grunts of contempt for the paper, and flat-out refusals for interviews.

Reached at his home late Thursday night, Gates spoke reluctantly and with anger. If there is a perception that he was ineffectual in what was supposed to be his finest hour, it is a perception created by the media, and this newspaper in particular, he said.

"I spent 36 hours on the street, out there with just my security aide and myself. I'm probably the biggest target in the city of Los Angeles. There were 'Kill Gates' signs all over the place, but I was on the street directing action . . .

"Had I been on the street," Gates continued, "I'd have led the troops right into that intersection. I think everybody knows that except the Los Angeles Times."

In fact, though, it is not just the usual suspects in local politics and the local media piling onto Gates and his command's handling of the riots.

In the last week, the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and other major papers have run articles heavy with criticism of Gates' initial absence from the scene and the way his officers were subsequently deployed.

The Washington Post quoted an unnamed source on Gates' activities in the days before the riots: "It was all PR and no planning." President Bush spent two days touring Southern California this week, and Gates--whom Bush used to invite to the White House--was never seen at the President's side.

Ray Davis, a former Santa Ana police chief, can put himself in Gates' shoes. Although he has been critical of Gates, he feels bad for him.

"I told my wife, it must be a terrible situation, walking away from the LAPD under the circumstances they have now. You're supposed to have accolades . . . These are your moments of glory. I would not want to be Daryl Gates facing what he is now."

For the most part, Gates seems to have reacted with characteristic sang froid. Last Sunday's "60 Minutes" showed him swaggering into the fray with reporter Leslie Stahl. Angry citizens got right in his face with their complaints. He remained self-assured, unflinching in his crisp uniform with the four silver stars down the collar.

After all, Gates has been under fire from one quarter or another since the day he ascended. As early as the 1982 incident in which he said some blacks might be more susceptible to chokehold fatalities than "normal" people, there was an outcry for him to resign.

One critic back then called him "an insidious cancer aggravating (racial) relationships." Bishop H. H. Brookins hinted that there might be riots if he didn't step down.

"My opinion is that it doesn't matter what he did, he'd still be criticized," Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters said this week. "The longer someone stays in office, the more controversy . . . and his is the highest profile police position in the country. He is sitting in the media capital of the world."

Thursday night, Gates agreed: "If we'd gone in there and killed a few people, then you'd be on my back saying, 'Oh my God, you really created a riot, you went in and killed those people,' and it probably would have turned out to be that way, because those are pretty vicious people and if they'd have attacked the officers somebody would have gotten shot.

"Then it would have been an entirely different scenario for you guys--'You've got to really get rid of this Gates because he leads his troops in such a fashion that they are brutal and he shot these people only because they are throwing rocks.'

"You can't have it both ways, but you try."

The irony is that while politicians, rabble-rousers and reporters may well have let Gates' politics and personality cloud their judgment of his performance, his colleagues are judging him on his police work.

And every day, the chief takes more hard hits from unexpected directions: Sheriff Sherman Block, Fire Chief Donald Manning, his own deputy chief, Matthew V. Hunt.

"I can't really evaluate his personality," said Bobby L. Jones, who was chief of the Metro-Dade police force in Florida, when Liberty City blew up into rioting in 1980. "I can evaluate the professional manner and the way he conducted himself in this situation, and in that vein he gets a really poor grade."

State Sen. Ed Davis (R-Santa Clarita), who preceded Gates as chief, put a different spin on the leadership analysis: "He's been able to defy the mayor and the legally, lawfully, constituted board of police commissioners with impunity. I've always found that if you can't follow orders as a general, you can never expect the privates to follow the orders of your sergeants."

Davis, who had his own trouble with the public and media from time to time as chief, showed little sympathy for Gates' current predicament. "I feel more sorry for the people of the city of Los Angeles. I feel more sorry for the people who lost so much in the riots."

Gates is the last in a long line of paramilitary police chiefs in Los Angeles, says Jerome K. Skolnick, professor of law and a sociologist at UC Berkeley. That line began with Chief William Parker, a strict disciplinarian who took 23-year-old Daryl Gates under his wing.

Parker, Skolnick says, worked hand in hand with the creators of the television show "Dragnet."

Parker once told Skolnick that " 'Dragnet' showed a true portrait of the policeman as a hard-working, selfless man, who is willing to go out and brave all sorts of hazards and work long hours to protect the community."

Gates sees himself as the "perfect representative" of the Parker legacy, Skolnick said.

But in Skolnick's mind, "What happened is the LAPD under Gates, and the Rodney King tape in particular, destroyed that vision. . . . It will never be the same. I certainly think that Gates would admit this whole episode has left his reputation tainted."

Even now, Gates' behavior is typical of an old-fashioned police chief who worked his way to the top, said Herbert A. Neiburg, a clinical psychologist in Westchester County, N.Y., and a consultant to numerous law enforcement agencies.

"He's the kind of guy who needs a lot of control and a lot of power and it sounds like he's trying to hold onto it as long as he can," he said.

If Gates did fumble as the riot was igniting, he may have been overcompensating for his need to control, Neiburg speculated. "He may not have wanted to go out with the lingering image of him overreacting," he said. Or, he may have been suffering from burnout.

"I'm sure he wanted to do the right thing," Neiburg said. But given the unrelenting criticism, and his short-timer status, "one has to ask, Where was the motivation?"

At Gates' Friday press conference, reporters asked him if, for the sake of the city, he thought he should step down now.

"No," Gates said, his blue eyes showing no trace of emotion.

Gates took full responsibility for some of his mistakes. He blamed the initial slow response on others in the command structure. And, as always, he stood behind his officers.

Even in Operation Desert Storm, which had months of planning, people made mistakes, he said. He also said, "I was there in 1965, in Watts, and I can tell you we did a far better job this time."

As Gates left, surrounded by clamoring reporters, he maintained his soldier's air of invulnerability.

On the phone, the night before though, he was tired after working long hours, and uncharacteristically beleaguered.

Again, most of his simmering anger was directed at the media, particularly The Times, which he decried as "run by a bunch of people from the East Coast, preppies . . ." who think that politically corrupt police forces are "wonderful."

"I'm tired. I've worked hard. I've spent 43 years in this city, providing outstanding service. And I don't give a damn about the Los Angeles Times . . .

"You don't understand. You really don't," Gates said, the rage in his voice easing by degrees into weariness. "You have the finest police department in the country. It costs you less than any other police department in the country, it's smaller than any other police department in the country for a city (this size), does more, works harder, produces more, keeps the crime down better than any other city in the nation. And you have done your best to ruin it. It's become dispirited. The morale is low. The ACLU runs it. And you think that's wonderful . . . .

"I've tried to tell the people of this city that they're making a big mistake. Quite frankly, I don't give a damn anymore . . . "

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