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Tough-Talking Chief Reshaped LAPD

Special to The Times

Ed Davis, the flamboyant and innovative former Los Angeles police chief who later defied stereotypes by supporting environmental issues and gay rights when he was a Republican state senator, died Saturday. He was 89.

A Morro Bay-area resident, Davis died about 7:15 p.m from complications of pneumonia. He was admitted to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in the San Luis Obispo area earlier this month when his wife, Bobbie, was unable to wake him up one morning.

Davis, who was chief of the Los Angeles Police Department from 1969 to 1978, gained notoriety for his many controversial public utterances, including his method for dealing with hijackers: Give them a trial, then “hang ‘em at the airport.”

He once asked the Los Angeles City Council to fund a submarine so the LAPD could bust drug smugglers at sea.

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When he was under a court-imposed gag order not to discuss a legal case, he invited reporters to a news conference, tied a handkerchief around his mouth and mumbled: “I’m one of the few men in the country without freedom of speech.”

But although some laughed at him or called Davis “Crazy Ed,” his real legacy as chief was a series of groundbreaking reforms that were copied by police departments across the country.

“Ed Davis was a dynamic leader in law enforcement,” said Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton in a statement. He credited Davis with helping to formulate the management principles of the LAPD, creating many successful crime-fighting programs and starting the Los Angeles Police Memorial Foundation to help families of police officers killed in the line of duty.

“He realized your true value and success depended on your relationship with the community,” said Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who joined the LAPD in 1965 as a street officer and became chief in 1997. “He realized that if you cultivated the community and they were your eyes and ears and they were the ones that were taking an active role and called when they saw something suspicious, then the Police Department grew by thousands of people taking an interest in the community.”

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Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who took police science classes from Davis at Cal State L.A. decades ago, called him “one of the most intelligent and innovative police chiefs in America.”

Before Davis’ tenure, the LAPD was known as an aggressive, remote, militaristic organization that efficiently rooted out crime but often created enmity in minority communities.

Davis, however, was one of the nation’s pioneers of community-based policing, which encourages residents to participate in their own law enforcement and creates ways for officers to get to know residents. Davis, who attempted to soften the image of the imperious LAPD patrol officer, halted the practice of frequently rotating patrol assignments because he wanted police to become familiar with the neighborhoods and the neighbors.

His philosophy was incorporated in a program he created called the Basic Car Plan, which divided Los Angeles into small geographical areas and assigned officers to meet with community representatives. Davis, who assigned almost 900 officers to the program, believed that police would be more effective if their duties were tailored to each locality. The officers were instructed to find out which crime problems concerned residents the most and then devise crime-fighting plans.

“The Basic Car Plan for L.A. was very, very state of the art for its time,” Baca said.

Davis also introduced Neighborhood Watch, which encouraged officers to spend time in the homes of residents, listen to their concerns and then set up neighborhood crime-prevention programs. At the time, Davis’ programs were groundbreaking and controversial -- inside and outside the department.

In minority neighborhoods, many residents believed that Davis’ reforms did not do enough to address the excessive-force complaints and police shootings that had long plagued their communities.

Still, Davis was widely hailed as a police innovator, and the LAPD was considered by many law enforcement experts to be the most professionally run police department in any large American city -- and the one most nearly free of corruption.

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Many of Davis’ innovations were deemphasized or dismantled when Daryl F. Gates took over as chief in 1978. But after the 1991 Rodney G. King beating, the Los Angeles riots in 1992 and years of turmoil within the LAPD, Davis and his vision of the department were suddenly back in vogue.

Davis’ book on policing, “Staff One,” was often seen in the offices of Mayor Richard J. Riordan and other city leaders, who embraced the former chief’s law enforcement philosophy. As the LAPD moved away from a paramilitary presence during the mid-1990s and embraced a more community-based philosophy, police officials often made the trek to Davis’ Morro Bay home with a sweeping ocean view to glean some of his insights.

Edward M. Davis was born Nov. 15, 1916, and reared in South-Central Los Angeles, which was then mostly white. Former Mayor Frank Shaw, who was later driven from office after a scandal, was a neighbor of the Davis family. During Shaw’s tenure, police officers were stationed outside his home 24 hours a day. Davis, who as a young boy idolized the officers, decided at the time to become a cop.

“I probably spent hundreds of hours talking to those uniformed policemen,” he said. “On the way to school, on the way to the store, on the way to a show at night.”

When his father suffered a heart attack, Davis was forced to drop out of Fremont High School. He was hired by the city parks department and was soon placed in a managerial training program. He attended classes at night, received his high school diploma and continued to read voraciously, focusing on books about police work.

At 21, he was one of 5,000 prospective candidates who took the LAPD exam. Only 80 qualified for the Police Academy class, including Davis and a UCLA track star, Tom Bradley, who would later serve five terms as mayor of Los Angeles.

Davis served in the Navy during World War II, and when he returned to the LAPD, he impressed many with his flair for leadership. Joseph Johnson, a former LAPD sergeant, worked in the Newton Division when Davis was a captain. During a Times interview some years ago, Johnson recalled a particularly dangerous incident in which a man wounded a couple and then barricaded himself inside a house with their children.

Officers exchanged shots with the suspect, who then fired at Davis from about 20 feet away.

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“We all leveled down, ready to fire,” Johnson recalled. “But Davis stepped between us and the man and told us to hold our fire. And then he talked the man out of his gun, without us killing him ....

“After it was all over, he said it was better police work to save a life than kill someone. He said he never believed in blowing people away.”

Davis also was known as a cop who didn’t want to spend his career on the street. He earned a bachelor’s degree from USC in public administration -- with honors -- while working full time as a police officer.

As Davis rose through the ranks, he had a tempestuous relationship with William Parker, the legendary LAPD chief. The two strong-willed men often clashed, but Davis learned much from Parker about leadership and professionalism. Parker entrusted Davis with the task of writing the first LAPD policy and procedure manual. Davis later expanded on the manual and delineated his 20 principles of policing, which, decades later, were still posted on LAPD station walls.

In 1969, Davis was named the city’s police chief, and he immediately put his imprint on the department. After Davis’ experiments with Neighborhood Watch and the Basic Car Plan, he created what was considered at the time the most extensive community-based policing program in any American city. Called Team Policing, the plan involved assigning a cadre of officers, including a lieutenant, detectives and juvenile and traffic cops, to various neighborhoods. They were given the mandate to fight crime aggressively -- with the residents support.

Team Policing and Davis’ other community-based innovations garnered support among many residents but precipitated bureaucratic carping within the department. Some said the strict geographic boundaries limited officers’ effectiveness and created too much competitiveness among officers in the various divisions.

A testament to Davis’ effective leadership, however, is the comparison of crime rates in Los Angeles and other areas when he was chief. Crime in the nation rose 55% from 1969 to 1978, but though the rate also increased dramatically in Southern California, it fell by 1% in Los Angeles.

Still, Davis was a shrewd enough bureaucrat to employ scare tactics when he appeared before the City Council and argued for more LAPD funding. He once advised residents to “bar your doors, buy a police dog, call us when we’re available and pray.”

Davis was chief at a time when the LAPD was severely criticized for employing heavy-handed tactics during a number of controversial shootouts.

In 1969, three officers and six Black Panthers were wounded during a four-hour standoff at the group’s headquarters.

Five years later, officers had a shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army. Two SLA members died of gunshot wounds, and three died of burns and smoke inhalation after the house in which they were hiding caught fire. Davis, however, was out of town during both incidents.

At the end of Davis’ tenure, then-Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who had occasionally criticized the chief’s policies, said Davis was a remarkable leader.

“Davis commands the respect of his subordinates without question, like nobody in this city does. They’re afraid of him, they love him, they respect him. He’s like the Vince Lombardi of the Police Department.”

Davis resigned from the department in 1978 and parlayed his popularity into a run for the GOP nomination for governor. Although he lost, Davis was an adroit campaigner and kept the race interesting with humorous one-liners. He quipped that the eventual GOP nominee, Atty. Gen. Evelle Younger, was “about as exciting as a mashed-potato sandwich.”

In 1980, Davis was elected as a state senator representing the conservative 19th District, which encompassed suburban sections of Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. During Davis’ first few years in the Senate, he fulfilled his law-and-order campaign pledges and introduced bills to expand the powers of law enforcement officers and increase the scope of the death penalty.

But Davis was too much of a maverick to slavishly stick to party orthodoxy. He denounced the religious wing of the Republican Party and voted for a gay-protection bill. One Republican critic denounced him as “the Legislature’s leading crusader for homosexual rights.”

He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1986 and lost the election but gained notoriety for his role in a Republican rhubarb. He accused another GOP primary candidate, U.S. Rep. Bobbi Fiedler, of offering him $100,000 to abandon his campaign.

Fiedler and her campaign manager were indicted for bribery, although the charges were later dropped.

In 1990, near the end of his Senate tenure, he angered the Republican right again by declaring that he would no longer vote against using Medi-Cal funds to pay for abortions for poor women. Davis also evolved into an outspoken environmentalist, supporting bills to expand state parks and protect mountain lions.

Davis once again surprised those who had stereotyped him as an unenlightened ex-cop when he argued that the Republican Party was in danger of being eclipsed unless it attracted more minorities and gays.

“When you see the cross-section of the Republican Party, you don’t see America,” he said shortly before he left politics. “If the Republican Party wants to be the majority party, it must be like a church. The church is supposed to open its doors to all sinners, not just Anglo European people.”

In 1992, Davis retired from the state Senate.

He spent his remaining years at his Morro Bay home enjoying the renaissance of his law enforcement philosophy and frequently consulting with LAPD leaders and Los Angeles politicians.

“I’m not seeking anything, but people do call me up,” he said in 1996.

Davis is survived by his wife, Bobbie; a son, Michael E. Davis, a Los Angeles County prosecutor; two daughters, Christine Ann Coey and Mary Ellen Burde; and several grandchildren.

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Times staff writers Steve Hymon and Richard Winton contributed to this report.


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