The death of Los Angeles' once-polarizing police chief brings back memories of the city's darkest days–and a style of U.S. policing that has, hopefully, gone forever.
Daryl Gates' death on Friday came as no surprise. The 83-year-old former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department had been battling bladder cancer since at least last February. He was revered within the LAPD for his loyalty to his troops, and will be much honored in the days to come–which makes it imperative that future generations never forget Gates' far darker legacy, and the forces in law enforcement that he zealously represented for decades, not just in Los Angeles, but throughout the nation.
Trim, fit and tan, Gates served as LAPD chief from 1978 to his forced resignation following the 1992 Los Angeles riots. A man of quiet, boyish charm, narrow vision, enormous ego, and unlimited ambition, he came of age poor and striving in the '30s and '40s, when LA was still a provincial city with a small-town mentality, peopled by poor Dust Bowl Okies and a conservative Midwestern middle and ruling-class.
By the '70s, however, the movement of large numbers of African Americans, Jews, Mexicans and Central Americans to Los Angeles was transforming both the city's complexion and politics. On the wider American scene, the increasing visibility of the counterculture, along with the rising women's, gay and anti-war movements, were challenging the comfort zones of Gates and millions of middle-class white Americans. Gates, a son of LA's ultra-conservative political culture, emerged as a spokesman for those Americans–addressing in particular their fear that urban America in the late 20th century was being overrun by black street crime.
That effectively made him the embodiment of a generation of white police chiefs – men with simplistic answers to complex questions of law and order. On the east coast they were exemplified by Frank Rizzo, the former police commissioner and then mayor of Philadelphia in the '70s. White, working-class, ethnic Philly cheered when Rizzo proclaimed that the best way to treat criminals was “Spacco il capo” (break their heads), and that the best way to reduce crime was to “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.”
Like Rizzo Gates was a master of rancorous rhetoric. He once used the phrase “blacks and normal people,” and argued that “casual” drug dealers should be “taken out and shot.” He claimed that Mexican American officers weren't being promoted because they were lazy. And he warned his critics that he might make public the LAPD's intelligence files on them. On the notion of hiring gay cops, he once wondered aloud, “Who would want to work with one?”
He seemed to revel in his enemies: the ACLU, the media, the mayor, critics in the city council, and an African American community which, despite being crippled by crime and desperate for protection, hated him and his LAPD as fiercely as any cops had been hated in deepest Dixie. Gates mockingly ignored pleas to reign in his officers made repeatedly by Tom Bradley, LA's long-serving black mayor and a former LAPD lieutenant (whom Gates considered a traitor to the force).
Gates knew he was operating in a fear-filled, high-crime political climate, had astoundingly strong civil service job protections, and could therefore proclaim that he and the LAPD were accountable to no one but themselves. His officers loved both the assertion and his combative attitude. “Cops like it when there's no gray area,” ex-LAPD chief Tom Reddin once told me. “If a guy gives you some trouble, whack him. He won't respect you, but he'll be afraid of you.” Operating in a high-crime, law-and-order era, and insulated by LA's rigid civil service protections, the LAPD policed as they'd been taught: aggressively, arrogantly, confrontationally.
The cost was catastrophic: large numbers of people holding nothing more than a rolled up bathrobe, a sweatshirt, a hairbrush, a typewriter, keys, a flashlight, or nothing at all, shot and killed by LAPD officers; scores more choked to death by officers in equally bizarre circumstances; families left homeless after drug searches left their homes uninhabitable; heads smashed by batons during peaceful demonstrations.
The New Centurions
Many of these practices were refinements of the strategies developed by Gates' mentor, William H. Parker, who ruled the LAPD from 1950 to 1966 and left behind a small, highly mobile force of “New Centurions” that employed fear and intimidation to control the city. These were the strategies that fueled the 1965 Watts rebellion; but instead of backing away from them, the LAPD responded to Watts by transforming itself into an army of occupation that routinely turned traffic stops into drawn-gun dramas and ghetto prone-outs. As the late John Jay College professor and former NYPD lieutenant James Fyfe once put it: “Everything [in the LAPD] was discussed as military operations and tactics, as opposed to human relations.”
There were plenty of obvious problems with such tactics. But the most important one was that they simply didn't work.
In the decades following Watts, violent crime in LA grew at more than twice the national average. In 1986, Los Angeles had the highest number of reported violent crimes per 100,000 residents and the highest number of property crimes. But Gates' answer was to do more of the same. In his battle to defeat Los Angeles youth gangs, the Bloods and Crips, Gates began massive south LA “sweeps” in which thousands of black men were indiscriminately arrested, essentially for being on the street at the wrong time.
Gates' policies also had a detrimental impact on policing elsewhere. LAPD tactics and philosophy, lionized in TV cop dramas, movies and books, were unquestioningly accepted through the Southwest. Numerous LAPD command-rank officers were hired as chiefs by cities who saw Gates' law-and-order tactics as the policing standard.
The end of the myth
But the LAPD myth was finally exploded by the 1992 Los Angeles riots, set off by the acquittal of four white police officers charged with the brutal beating of African American motorist Rodney King. The infamous grainy video of the beating went viral around the world, and in the process exposed both the ineffectiveness and the cruelty of the Gates model of policing. The physical toll of the riots–53 dead, 2,300 injured, and $1 billion in insured losses–almost took second place to the psychological toll on the LAPD. The Hollywood Golden Boys had become a symbol of all that was bad, bigoted and brutal in big-city policing. The cost to Gates was the utter destruction of his reputation. As violence, arson and looting spread to the LAPD's Parker Center headquarters, Gates slipped out a back door to attend a Brentwood fundraiser organized to defeat an up-coming police-reform ballot amendment. His resignation soon followed.
But his legacy remained powerful among the rank-and-file. Many within the department still believed that Rodney King deserved what he got, and that Daryl Gates didn't. Over the next decade, the U.S. Justice Department used a new federal law passed by Congress in 1994 in the wake of the King beating and the riots to force a consent decree on the city and department, mandating key reforms overseen by a federal judge. But the 1999 Rampart Scandal made clear that frame-ups, beatings and shootings continued to be part of the LAPD paramilitary culture.
Then, in 2002, Mayor James Hahn changed the game by hiring former New York City police commissioner William Bratton as chief. It took eight years of hard work by Bratton, the support of reform organizations like the Advancement Project, and the efforts of hundreds of men and women within the department, to erase Gate's legacy and give the LAPD back to the people of Los Angeles.
The best way for them–and for policy makers throughout the nation–to insure that Daryl Gates' legacy of police politicization, militarism and unaccountability never returns, is to never forget the dark, stormy days of his tenure.
ED NOTE: A version of this essay has appeared in the Los Angeles Times
Joe Domanick is Associate Director of John Jay College's Center on Media, Crime and Justice, the West Coast Bureau Chief of TheCrimeReport.org, and the author of “To Protect and to Serve: The LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams.”
Photo by Lou Angeli via Flickr.