Hallelujah! Finally, I totally agree with a Times editorial.
Your editorial (May 16), "The Philadelphia Story," is outstanding. I hope that it will be read and thoughtfully considered by everyone in this city and every major city throughout the United States.
As you clearly point out, the first responsibility of municipal government is to provide for public safety and it was under that very important imperative that the actions of the Philadelphia police were taken. The results have shocked us all because of the enormity of the tragedy. Even we in the police profession, who are not easily shocked, were appalled at what occurred.
But the shock and the enormity of the tragedy should not be used as an excuse to engage in what has always been a great American pastime--second-guessing and Monday-morning quarterbacking. To the contrary, it is reason for patiently and carefully gathering all the facts and only then making judgments about the action taken by Philadelphia authorities.
Some politicians and even more law enforcement officials, who should know better, already and without possession of the facts have been sharply critical of the Philadelphia police and Mayor W. Wilson Goode. I think that is unconscionable.
Having been in the position of being responsible for making on-the-spot, under-fire decisions that have the potential for major serious consequences, I have the utmost empathy for Philadelphia Commissioner Gregory Sambor. It is not easy to see your officers under heavy fire and to know at any instant one or several may be killed because you were either too aggressive or not aggressive enough in your decision-making. I mark my tenure as chief of police not by the years that I have served, but by the times I have had to visit wounded officers in the hospital or present the flag of our country to the families of officers who have been killed in the line of duty. It is a responsibility that ages you quickly.
As your editorial points out, it is imperative that we look for the least destructive way of dealing with any incident, but sometimes it is simply not practical to sit back, do nothing and hope the situation will resolve itself. In this instance, had the police simply tried to contain the group and starve them out, not only would people have been deprived of the use of their homes, streets and neighborhoods, but it would have given the barricaded group opportunity to pick off the officers one by one.
Being painfully aware that an incident of this kind could occur in Los Angeles, I immediately sent the lieutenant in charge of our SWAT unit and a lieutenant from our anti-terrorist division to Philadelphia to examine what occurred, on location and in detail. Philadelphia authorities, rather than being close-mouthed and defensive, have been open and candid and have given my representatives free rein to gather facts and take pictures in order to come away with as much technical and tactical information as possible.
When they return they will use that information to build a scenario and develop tactics that will guide this department in handling an incident of a similar nature. We will critically examine everything that was done, not in a destructive way, but as a constructive mechanism to make LAPD better prepared.
Preliminarily, my SWAT commander has informed me that this incident and the problems confronting the Philadelphia police make the terribly violent confrontation with the Symbionese Liberation Army appear to have been a minor skirmish in comparison. That may be an overstatement, but it is important to point out that while I believe officers of this department handled the SLA incident expertly and heroically, we have made quantum leaps in our skills because we have been forever critical, in a constructive way, of our actions in that incident.
To quote the last paragraph of your editorial, "What happened in Philadelphia may have been inevitable, or it may have been preventable; only further investigation and a rigorous exposure of the facts will tell. Whatever the conclusions reached, the great need is to see that what happened in Philadelphia is not allowed to recur." This is right on point. Let us learn from this incident through constructive criticism and not recrimination. Let us also commend Mayor Goode for his strong leadership and the people of Philadelphia for their support of him. Thus far they have recognized, more accurately and directly than most, that the rule of law is a fine golden threat that holds our civilization together and it must not be broken no matter what the cost.
DARYL F. GATES
Chief of Police