The warrior chief

On Daryl F. Gates’ last day as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1992, Times staff writer Sheryl Stolberg asked him how he thought history would view his tenure. “I think history will take care of itself,” he said.

By the time of his death at the age of 83, it had. Almost two decades after Los Angeles erupted in the worst U.S. rioting of the 20th century, a conflagration both ignited and unsuccessfully extinguished by Gates’ LAPD, the verdict of history is largely in -- and if it suggests that Gates wasn’t necessarily guilty on all counts, there is no chance of a pardon. While an honorable man, a devoted public servant and a capable crime-fighter who might have made a decent police chief in an earlier era, Gates was a hidebound, egomaniacal figure who was so wrong for the job at the time he served in it that he nearly destroyed the city he was charged with protecting.

Gates, a Navy veteran who served in the Pacific during World War II, became chief of the LAPD in 1978. He ran the department largely in the style of his model and mentor, legendary Chief William H. Parker, for whom Gates had once served as chauffeur. Yet even while the LAPD stayed much the same, the city around it was changing fast. Far larger and more diverse than it had been in Parker’s day, it experienced a crack cocaine epidemic early in Gates’ tenure that ravaged poor communities and gave rise to a new kind of murderous gang culture. Gates’ response was to turn the police force into an organization that even the most hardened criminals would fear.

An incident in 1985 serves as an illustration both of Gates’ character and that of the department he led. After undercover officers bought cocaine at a suspected “rock house” in Pacoima, Gates rolled out his newest weapon in the war on crime: a six-ton tank with a 14-foot battering ram in the front. With Gates in the passenger seat, the ram smashed through the wall of the house, narrowly missing two women and three children who had been eating ice cream inside. There was no one else at home, and an extensive search turned up only a small amount of marijuana and no weapons. The raid outraged community activists and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, but Gates, characteristically, was unapologetic.

That, in a nutshell, was the kind of policing Daryl Gates stood for: an officer in a tank, shielded behind steel walls from the community he serves, knocking down the wall instead of knocking at the door. Police had long complained that officers sometimes felt outgunned by criminals, but it was Gates who did something about it. He created the Special Weapons and Tactics team, a unit replicated nationwide, to bring military precision and force to police operations. Meanwhile, he treated tough neighborhoods as enemy-occupied territory. His officers were trained to bring overwhelming force to bear, to stay in their patrol cars rather than fraternize with the enemy, to focus on arrests and sweeps rather than crime prevention.

This was, after all, the style that had worked for Parker. Yet in other big cities, a very different strategy was taking hold. Known as “community policing,” it emphasized partnerships with community and governmental organizations, communication between officers and people on the beats they patrolled, and new methods of pinpointing and ameliorating trouble spots. As L.A.'s top politicians, led by Mayor Tom Bradley, grew ever more insistent that Gates adopt these methods, the chief only clung harder to tradition -- and because it was then impossible to fire a police chief without cause, there was nothing Bradley or anyone else could do about it. Meanwhile, a cancer was growing within the LAPD, one that would metastasize on March 3, 1991.

The Rodney King beating

In minority communities already boiling with suppressed rage over perceived mistreatment and racism by the LAPD, including inflammatory comments from Gates himself, the savage beating of Rodney G. King by four white officers seemed like confirmation of their worst suspicions. King was hardly a sympathetic figure -- a drunk driver who resisted arrest. Yet the response, videotaped from a nearby apartment in Lake View Terrace, was so brutal and unnecessary that it shocked the world.

What was going on within the department that had allowed such a debacle? Amid furious protests and calls for Gates’ resignation, a blue-ribbon panel led by future Secretary of State Warren Christopher was formed to answer that question. Its report revealed an astonishingly insular organization in which there were few consequences for bad behavior. Racism and brutality were tolerated by superiors and covered up by a code of silence among officers; though the department had grown more diverse under Gates, women and minorities were treated as tokens, seldom promoted and too afraid of retaliation to speak out. Among its recommendations, the commission said chiefs should be appointed by the mayor and limited to two five-year terms; the LAPD should implement community policing; and the Police Commission should exercise more oversight. And, most scathingly, Gates should resign. He refused.

The most fateful day of his life arrived less than a year later, on April 29, 1992. A Ventura County jury devoid of African Americans acquitted the four officers involved in the King beating on charges of assault and excessive force. Riots erupted throughout the city, but the focus of the activity, and of media attention as cameras filmed the scene from helicopters buzzing overhead, was the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues in South L.A. As cameras rolled, a small group of officers at first confronted the mounting crowd, then retreated and were not seen again. The rampage of burning and looting that followed, including the brutal beating of white trucker Reginald Denny, went uncontested by a police force that seemed to have vanished into its station houses.

Gates, meanwhile, was attending a political fundraiser in Brentwood. As pandemonium ruled South L.A., he spent less than an hour at a police command post, then left. Although it had been widely anticipated that the King verdict could prompt a violent response, he had implemented no emergency planning as the trial wore on.

Betrayal of trust

To a city already widely disgusted with Gates, this was the ultimate betrayal of trust. Many believed his apparent failure to take the rioting seriously was a peevish act, his way of getting back at the politicians and community activists who had been calling for his head. Gates disputed that contention, laying the blame on one of his subordinates for failing to regroup with a stronger force at Florence and Normandie. His defenders pointed out that had the LAPD made a more aggressive response on April 29 and subsequent days of mayhem, it might only have fueled even more deadly violence, given rioters’ fury at the police.

Second-guessing aside, Gates’ many management failings -- pointed out that October by yet another special panel -- were large and unforgivable. Public anger was too overwhelming even for Gates to fight it off anymore. After announcing his retirement, changing his mind, and taking every opportunity to nettle the “crummy little politicians” who wanted to interfere with his department, he finally stepped down in June 1992.

It would be corny, but oddly appropriate, to compare Gates to a figure from Greek tragedy felled by hubris. But an even more fatal flaw was his ferocious resistance to change. For the rest of his life, Gates fought publicly to maintain the status quo at the LAPD, railing against such reforms as community policing, allowing politicians to appoint chiefs and improving civilian oversight of the department. His extreme loyalty to this old-fashioned ethos blinded him to the toxic culture it created. His hostile patrol style inflamed racial tensions and created an adversarial relationship between the police and the community. The lack of outside supervision he insisted on made rogue officers feel -- accurately -- that they could get away with just about anything, that they would be protected by fellow officers and by supervisors who valued loyalty more than good behavior.

The King beating and the riots weren’t the only negative results. The Rampart scandal of the late 1990s, in which dozens of officers from Gates’ beloved anti-gang unit were implicated in drug dealing, planting evidence, extortion and a host of other nefarious activities, stemmed directly from the failure by Gates’ successors to fully implement the recommendations of the Christopher Commission. That process, thanks largely to the leadership of former Chief William J. Bratton, is now finally complete, and the result is a far more diverse, professional organization with vastly improved community relations. If there’s a verdict of history so far, it probably would be that the civilian overseers who so infuriated Gates were right, and he was hopelessly wrong.

That’s not a kind epitaph for a man who lived his life by a rough code and always did what he genuinely thought was right. And coming from this newspaper, with which Gates engaged in a war of words throughout his career and afterward, it feels a little like a final underhanded swipe. So we’ll say this about Gates: He was a guy you’d want by your side in a war, but not while you’re trying to keep the peace.