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Daryl Gates: The star of his own police show

Plain and simple, the man looked like a Central Casting cop, which in Los Angeles, in Hollywood, was probably the only way the chief of police could look.

The hard angle of the jaw, the eyes that could pin a beetle to a square of cardboard -- Daryl Gates worked it all, as leading man in the civic drama of policing Los Angeles.

Even in his 80s, lean as a piece of beef jerky and more than a dozen years off the job, he was still “the chief,” to himself and to some young cops who weren’t even in the LAPD when he left in 1992, in a blaze of pique and political crossfire.

For years, his name showed up in rap lyrics and on protest signs, which is not surprising. In a city of anonymous pols and bureaucrats, the police chief, and this chief in particular, was a lightning rod and a rallying point. The LAPD was famous; Gates was its star.

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I spent nearly three hours with him about a year ago, probably the last sit-down interview he ever gave. He brought some Starbucks coffee and delicacies and gave me my choice. He was courteous and droll and unrelenting. After my column ran, he e-mailed me often and invited me to dinner sometime.

Daryl Gates’ problem was Los Angeles’ problem. 1960s L.A., that “white spot” the city once advertised itself to be, looked in the mirror of 1980s L.A. and didn’t recognize itself. Highland Park, the working-guy neighborhood where Gates had grown up and lived, had shaded from white into brown. Black L.A. was there in the mirror, too. But the mirrors in Parker Center still reflected white faces, men’s faces. Daryl Gates’ face.

His tutorial on how to be a police chief began in the front seat of the car he drove for then-Chief William Parker. Gates imbibed from this his own sense of rectitude. His horror of disorder extended to his book tour in New York decades later, when he glared at Manhattan jaywalkers as if they were pickpockets and cutthroats.

I knew a man who spent a bit of time as Gates’ driver. The chief insisted that they not park his official car in the red zones reserved for patrol cops and insisted on putting coins in the parking meter.

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It was a choice example of what Gates viewed as corruption. His mentor, Parker, emerged from an era when the mayor’s cronies sold the answers to police civil service exams. Corruption was cops on the take, shaking down hookers and putting the squeeze on crooked businessmen.

Under Parker, Los Angeles’ finest would not owe people money, or take it. They were also not divorced; Gates told me that his own divorce cost him points on a civil service oral exam.

Gates was the last chief to get his job by climbing the civil service ladder. But his was also a Horatio Alger story, in the sense that those stories are always about a powerful man -- in this case, Parker -- taking a shine to some promising kid and making him his protégé.

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Gates became chief in 1978, just as a former fellow cop, Tom Bradley, was into his second term as L.A.'s mayor -- the first black mayor of a big non-black city.

The police corruption of the 1980s and ‘90s wasn’t the old corruption of the purse. Johnny Carson used to express his mock astonishment that L.A. cops, unlike cops elsewhere, didn’t take tips.

It was, rather, a corruption of power. Power over the powerless, and abuse of authority, in the name of authority. It was making arrests for “DWB” (driving while black) and references to “NHI” murders (no humans involved -- meaning minority-on-minority killings). It was swoop in, sweep out, lock up. CRASH took on drugs and gangs; SWAT took on the armed and unruly.

The citizens of Los An- geles supplied Gates with a rationale for this kind of policing; indeed, they made some of it necessary. Taxpaying Angelenos wanted aggressive policing on the cheap. Don’t raise my taxes -- do your job. Just keep those people out of my life. Keep that thin blue line thin.

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So the beat patrols of New York or Chicago weren’t the L.A. model. Here, it was the basic-car plan, a kind of strike force on wheels -- cops were visible zooming by, zooming in when somebody called for help.

Daryl Gates made this his LAPD. He also made quick-response a hallmark, and some of his department’s special operations became the national gold standard. Every department in every town in the nation wanted some of that LAPD status and Hollywood style.

The relationship between police and press changed, too. Cop reporters had once carried their own special gold LAPD shields. Now they carried tape recorders and quoted every slight and slip with merciless accuracy.

In return, Gates was never loath to offer up zinger sound bites about the city’s political leadership and its press. The demands escalated for community policing. But they didn’t come from communities Gates or his officers necessarily knew; many of his officers didn’t even live in L.A. anymore -- they either couldn’t afford to or didn’t want to.

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The LAPD was a family, and Gates had his family’s back. The LAPD was also one family Gates could fix. If a cop stepped out of line, it was a matter for the family to take care of -- not some discipline-by-public-committee. When he became chief, he dumped the swags of gold braid that had made some chiefs look like operetta admirals and put on the plain ink-blue uniform of the LAPD cop. They loved him for that too.

Gates’ own family must have been painful to inhabit -- a drunken, absentee father and then a drug-haunted son, whose tragedies were the seedling for Gates’ passionate crusade against drugs, occurring at a moment when crack cocaine was ravaging L.A.'s poor neighborhoods and powder cocaine was frying brains in its rich ones.

His DARE program probably had more real impact than First Lady Nancy Reagan’s bumper-sticker “Just Say No” campaign. There were big headlines and big nightly news segments as the first lady put on an LAPD Windbreaker and joined Gates for a battering-ram assault on a crack house. (Gates kept trying to get “rock cocaine” into the lexicon, but “crack,” which just sounded edgier, won the day.)

In our long, last interview, he made it clear that the current notion of legalizing drugs might make them cheaper, but it wouldn’t make them any less devastating.

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While the face in the city’s mirror kept changing, Gates’ did not. The black mayor had once worn the LAPD uniform, but as far as Gates was concerned, Bradley had dishonored it by criticizing Parker’s management while still wearing sergeant’s stripes. Near the end of their careers, both men -- a mayor and chief with very powerful and very different constituencies -- went a year without speaking.

The Rodney King beating broke more than a few of King’s bones. It broke open the accumulated criticism of the LAPD and broke loose the political and racial tectonic plates that had been building up pressure for years.

After that, Gates’ compass seemed to swing awry. The irony is that his truculent hostility toward the Christopher Commission reforms and the call for more civilian oversight of the LAPD wound up accomplishing something Gates hated: the selection of a chief not by civil service process but by political appointment.

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The hours of the worst rioting in 1992, after the acquittal of officers in the King case, found Gates out raising money to beat a ballot measure on police reform. I imagine it must have been like a knife-twist for Gates that news reports said he had been at a “Brentwood cocktail party” fundraiser -- the words conjured a place and an event that were the antithesis of his image.

When, after years of defending his cops’ conduct and misconduct against all outside critics, he ended up blaming his staff and a couple of subordinates for the chaos at Florence and Normandie, you knew it was just a matter of time before he’d be putting down the chief’s shield.

He left the department, but as they say, the department never left him. “Chief” was part of his e-mail address. It didn’t displease him that his successor -- an overweight out-of-towner named Willie Williams -- was reported to have taken comped rooms in Vegas, a classic Gates-era no-no.

He gave no quarter in our conversation, laying into Bradley, Warren Christopher, even former Mayor Richard Riordan. But he had a few nice words for Jerry Brown, about how being attorney general had changed him, and how it would rattle people to think that a guy like Gates might support a guy like Brown for governor.

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I’m sorry I never got to have that dinner with him. It would have been an adventure, to get further inside that head that some of the city wanted to crown, and the rest wanted on a platter.

patt.morrison

@latimes.com


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