Daryl F. Gates' autobiography, "Chief: My Life in the LAPD" is a brisk, anecdotal story of a hot-tempered, stubborn, intelligent and unbelievably egotistical cop with an irresistible compulsion to jump into hot water. It goes a long way toward explaining the behavior of the mercurial chief, and of the department he has headed for 14 years.
This is not great literature. The writing is plain and the chief doesn't have much insight into the history of his city or its politics. To Gates, Los Angeles is a simple matter of scumbag politicians who constantly interfere with the thin blue line of cops battling untold numbers of crooks on behalf of a largely unappreciative citizenry.
Nor is there a huge amount of news in the book. Gates adds more details to his side of the Rodney King beating controversy. The tape made him sick, he reports. Sgt. Stacy Koon should have stepped in when the cops were beating King.
Too bad Gates didn't say so at the time.
Miraculously, Gates even admits some failures. "I was too combative," he says. "In retrospect, I should have been far more diplomatic, and I could have been with some of the police commissioners and politicians."
And, here it is in writing, in a book, where he can't take it back. Chief Gates is leaving. He is ready to retire. He's bored with the job. "After 14 years as chief, the challenges were gone; there wasn't anything I hadn't done," he writes. So I guess we can now safely book the hotel room for his farewell banquet.
Despite all this, "Chief," written with Diane K. Shah (for six years a sports columnist at the Herald-Examiner), is much more than I expected. I anticipated 300 or so pages of vitriolic score settling and name calling by a man who judges his success by the number of enemies he's made. Add a few war stories from the battlefield streets of Los Angeles, season it with some right-wing philosophy and that would be the book.
Gates, of course, settles scores, none with more vigor than his hit on his most despised enemy, Mayor Tom Bradley. The mayor's relations with the LAPD have been strained since the 1965 Watts riots, when Bradley, a former LAPD lieutenant, accused Police Chief William H. Parker of running a racist department. Parker derided Bradley's attempt to "pin (the riots) on the police," just as the 1965 McCone Commission, appointed by Gov. Edmund (Pat) Brown, rejected calls for a civilian review board of the police and scoffed at widespread charges of police brutality.
In the following two years, though, charges similar to Bradley's were made by the U. S. Civil Rights Commission, which castigated the LAPD for insensitivity toward African-Americans, and by a team of investigators appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and headed by Deputy Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark.
In words that must have given him great pleasure, Gates concludes that "in creating his own Tammany Hall, Bradley had brought to Los Angeles a rat's nest of impropriety not seen since the days of the Shaw regime of the 1930s."
There are also plenty of war stories, told with the cynical weariness of a character in a Joe Wambaugh novel. As assistant chief, Gates is called to the scene of one of the Skid Row Slasher murders: "On the drive over, I tried not to think about what awaited me. Even so, I could feel queasiness stirring in the pit of my stomach. . . . I stared at the body an extra long time; then, reluctantly my eyes traveled to his neck and . . . Aw, Jesus. Clyde Hay's head had been nearly severed from his body, the gaping slash extending from one ear to another."
What is most valuable is Gates' personal story, told here in greater detail than ever before. Read this and you begin to understand the man.
Take Gates' view of the rich. He sees them with contempt mixed with grudging envy, seeing them from the perspective of a working-class populist. Now I understand why. The Depression impoverished his father, Paul Gates, a plumber, and plunged him into a five-year period of deep alcoholism. The family moved from a pleasant home in Glendale to "a tired and ramshackle house that was quite small." Food handouts helped the family survive. His mother supported the family by working in a garment factory. "The sting of poverty followed me to school," he writes. The other kids had peanut butter sandwiches, in lunch boxes with Thermos bottles. Gates went off in a corner and ate his mashed potato or bean sandwiches, carried in a wrinkled paper bag. In the book, those half-century-old memories are as clear and as painful as what happened yesterday.
His father's alcoholism brings up another point. Three of the people closest to Gates have been addicts. Not only was his father an alcoholic, but so was his idol and mentor, the late Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Parker. And Gates' son, Scott, is a drug addict.
"I became totally smitten with Bill Parker," writes Gates, who was his driver for 15 months and later his adjutant and chief aide. "He was, I suppose, a kind of father figure--although in some ways he was a paternal image in more ways than I would have liked. . . . Apart from the bad long-ago memories Parker's drinking triggered in me, it was just an incredible thing to watch this man, who carried himself with such dignity and presence, lurching around really loaded."
In dealing with Scott's drug addiction, Gates was the classic soft-touch parent. But after Scott's fourth arrest, he asked Gates to bail him out again. "This time, I said 'I won't,' " Gates says. "Never before had I said no to my son and it was probably the hardest thing I have ever done." Today, he sees his son during sober periods, but "I can always tell when Scott's using again. . . . I live day to day, wondering whether my son's going to make it."
Then there's the matter of Gates' ego. For example, Gates sees himself as a super detective. He says he figured out the location of the apartment where the Hillside Strangler duo, Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono Jr., did their foul deeds; only his subordinates didn't follow up, and another police department solved the crime. When it was his job to lobby the city council as assistant chief, he was a super lobbyist. After a time, he says, "I was able to stroll into City Hall anytime and talk the council into almost anything."
That egotistic view shapes his relations with the world outside the LAPD. The members of the California Highway Patrol are a bunch of helpless ticket writers. The Secret Service is pictured as inept; the FBI as sincere, but a bit thick-headed. Neighboring police departments are small-town.
With that attitude, no wonder Gates was slow in asking for outside help during the riot.
And finally, Gates' autobiography explains how his present outlook on life was shaped by the fact that he was a child of old Los Angeles, the L.A. of the Red Car commuter lines and downtown movie palaces. Most of today's Angelenos aren't familiar with that era, when life in L.A. had a simple, small-town quality, reflecting the Midwestern roots of many of its residents.
As a teen-ager, Gates cruised around town in his '36 Ford. He played football for Franklin High and took his girlfriend to the Franklin Theater. He went off to World War II in the Navy, and when he returned, he enrolled at old L.A.'s favorite university, USC.
The old L.A. was a mostly white, middle-class city, run by a conservative business establishment. That's all gone now, replaced by a new L.A. of many races and cultures, run by liberal Democratic politicians. What's left of the old L.A. has never come to terms with that, and neither has Daryl Gates.