No, we can’t always just get along

DARYL F. GATES was chief of the LAPD from 1978 to 1992.

SOME OF THE recent stories from downtown Los Angeles have had a very familiar ring to them: “Tensions Flare Between City Council and Police Chief”; “Council Members Irked by Chief’s Leadership Style”; “Councilman Demands Apology from Police Chief.” And finally one that really brought back memories for me: “Police Chief Refuses to Apologize.”

I no longer live in L.A., but I continue to follow city politics through friends, and of course through those still working in the Los Angeles Police Department, where I proudly served for 42 years, including 14 as chief.

I wish nothing but the best for the city, and most especially for its police officers. But when I read about the tensions between LAPD Chief William Bratton and some members of the City Council -- sparked by a proposed change in hiring policy -- I couldn’t help but smile a little.


Given my own experience in such matters, I’ve found the disagreement between Bratton and a few council members, if a bit overheated at times, to be a sign of healthy political discourse.

Indeed, the airing of such disagreements often serves to inform the public about issues that might otherwise escape its attention. In fact, I think it’s sad that such disagreements are as rare as they are and that the police chief’s role has been largely relegated to the ranks of politicians, most of whom walk in fear of uttering even a single word that might offend someone, somewhere.

During my tenure with the LAPD, I operated under the terms of a City Charter amendment, adopted in 1937, that was aimed at curbing what was at that time seen as corruptive political influence on the department. Before this amendment was adopted, most LAPD chiefs owed their positions more to political patronage than to any actual qualifications, and the laws were often enforced with an eye toward how this or that constituency might be affected. The 1937 system allowed chiefs to continue in their jobs for as long as they wished, barring malfeasance, insulating them from the ever-shifting winds of politics and allowing the LAPD to become, despite its occasional scandals, one of the most corruption-free police departments in the country.

The pendulum swung back in 1992 with the passage of Charter Amendment F, reforms hastily crafted by people who, in my opinion, were more intent on seeing me replaced than on truly improving the LAPD. Politics was reinserted into decisions regarding the selection and retention of the police chief, and in my admittedly biased view, the cure turned out to be worse than the disease. What followed was a decade of instability in the department that saw four chiefs, much internal strife and a scandal that eclipsed any that had occurred in the previous 40 years.

Though I’ve disagreed with City Councilman (and former LAPD Chief) Bernard Parks over the years, I can’t fault him in the current flap for speaking out against Bratton’s proposal to change a long-standing policy and allow some prior drug usage by candidates for the LAPD. Contrary to what Bratton said on television (which sparked the furor), Parks and Dennis Zine, another city councilman and an LAPD veteran, do “know what they’re talking about” and were right to challenge this plan.

But I know that both politics and police work can sometimes require a thick skin. After all, “megalomaniacal personality” is among the more printable things I’ve been called. For the councilmen to demand a Police Commission investigation because of a couple of intemperate remarks strikes me as petty, not to mention a waste of the commission’s time. These guys ought to settle their differences in private and get back to doing the city’s business.


As chief of police I had my share -- perhaps more than my share -- of disagreements with politicians, about disputes such as a $37-million budget cut or how the department conducted intelligence gathering. But some of those with whom I disagreed years ago are today my friends, and they tell me privately that those disagreements helped them become better, more effective politicians. I made my share of gaffes, but the people of Los Angeles were never confused about where I stood on the issues. If this embarrassed some politicians and exasperated some in the media, so be it. Sometimes a little embarrassment or a little exasperation is just what people need.