The journalist and Daryl Gates
Daryl Gates did not like me much. I know this because he told me so. Often. And in terms that could hardly be misunderstood.
At our first meeting, which took place in a San Marino cafe in 1992, Gates glanced at the menu and said: “Look, there’s something for you -- quiche.” A few minutes later, he archly informed me that the LAPD was well aware of the drug use of one of my colleagues. Detectives, he said, had rifled the reporter’s laundry at a laundromat and turned up a vial of cocaine. Warning delivered.
Still, early on we managed to strike an uneasy relationship. We frequently discussed the Rodney G. King beating and the police response to the 1992 riots, which we observed from distinctly different perspectives. I was at Parker Center with his command staff during the early hours of that conflagration, as protesters tipped over a guard shack, set it on fire and pelted the building with rocks. Inside, top commanders frantically tried to find Gates. He was at a fundraiser in Brentwood, trying to beat back the city charter reform effort aimed at revamping his department. Later, Gates blamed his command staff for failing to respond more forcefully -- but excused himself for his untimely absence.
I wrote about these and other police issues as The Times’ lead reporter on the Los Angeles Police Department, and he often complained, but we still talked.
Indeed, we had our moments of mutual appreciation. I admired his dedication to Los Angeles and his absolute devotion to its Police Department. He was accessible and answered my many questions, often churlishly but always forthrightly and, I believe, honestly. He was genuinely and refreshingly combative. There was nothing sneaky or evasive about Gates. I enjoyed him.
For his part, Gates occasionally found reason to compliment a story I’d done. He approved of my coverage of his successor, Police Chief Willie L. Williams, and was particularly delighted when I chronicled -- and thereby abetted -- Williams’ downfall. When Williams crossed swords with the Police Commission, I obtained a copy of the confidential file detailing its questions to him about his acceptance of freebies, including comped rooms in Las Vegas. Gates was pleased and told me so.
But he detested The Times, and he disliked my habit of seeking out insights from others he deplored. Warren Christopher was one leader whose wisdom I relied on, and still do. Gates fumed that Christopher and the investigative commission he headed after the King beating were the ruin of the LAPD. He could not understand why I didn’t see that.
Former Chief Ed Davis, who welcomed me to his home and informed much of my appreciation for the LAPD’s rich and laudable history, was another villain in Gates’ universe; Gates regarded Davis as a traitor for testifying before the Christopher Commission in favor of term limits for the chief. I admired many of the police union’s leaders; Gates thought little of the league. To me, Ramona Ripston, head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, was an articulate advocate for liberal L.A.; to Gates, she was a menace. He groused when I quoted her.
As the years went by, more people were added to Gates’ honor roll of disregard. Chief William J. Bratton was a favorite target: Gates considered him egotistical and overly political. And, of course, he loathed former Mayor Tom Bradley with an alarming passion.
In 1997, I wrote a cover story for the Los Angeles Times Magazine in which I examined Williams’ failings as chief. The story included this sentence: “Chief Daryl F. Gates postured and fought until he could no more, then retired in disgrace, a once-admiring city tired of his bravado.”
The next day, Gates called a colleague of mine at The Times and asked him to tell me that Gates would never speak to me again. He was true to his word. One thing I’ll say for him: Daryl Gates was steadfast.
He did, however, deliver one more critique of me. As editor of The Times’ editorial pages, I had many occasions to write or edit pieces about the Police Department and Bratton. Some of those bugged Gates, and one sent him over the edge. It was an unsigned editorial that appeared last year, and it reflected the collective judgment of the editorial board, but Gates spied my hand at work and directed his ire at one passage that revisited the LAPD’s shameful riot response in 1992. That passage remarked on the “latent cowardice” revealed that day, and Gates exploded.
Still unwilling to speak to me directly, Gates instead e-mailed another colleague and asked her to share his note with members of the editorial board, especially, as he put it, “that prime ass-hole Jim Newton.” Well, I thought, if I am one, I might as well be a prime one.
To the editorial board, he began: “You know not what you are saying. You have no first hand reference.” His note was long and furious, full of accusations and barbs, fighting fights he and I had out nearly 20 years ago.
“You have crossed the line,” he concluded, “so I am resorting to the kind of pejorative you so disliked in me as Chief. I am calling all of you miserable no good SOBs and at 83 years of age I am willing to back up my statement in any way you choose. In other words, I am calling you ass holes out. . . . Let me know how you ass holes would like to settle this -- cowards that you are.”
I read that, realizing that Gates was, in effect, challenging me and my colleagues to a fistfight. I didn’t respond. After all, I’m pretty sure he could have taken me. And, contrary to what Gates long thought, I’m no idiot.
Jim Newton is The Times’ editor at large. He covered Southern California law enforcement and the LAPD from 1992 to 1997.