On a tense night soon after the 1965 Watts riots, a squad of Los Angeles police officers responded to reports of a skirmish in the curfew zone. Intimidated by the crowd, the officers held back. Then a young commander by the name of Daryl Gates arrived on the scene.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times 17 years after the incident, a member of the LAPD's SWAT team still remembered the way Gates quickly and forcefully defused the situation.
"That was the first time I ever saw a high-ranking police official come to the scene personally and say something strong, rather than stand back and look confused . . . " said Ron McCarthy, a sergeant at the time.
In the 27 years since Watts, Daryl Francis Gates' take-charge, battering-ram approach to law enforcement carried him straight to the top of the LAPD.
Since Gates took control of the department in 1978, his jut-jawed image and tough public statements have projected a single subtext: The disciplined, aggressive, thin blue line of cops he commands are all that protect the city's innocents from criminal anarchy.
Last week, when the city erupted in violence, cynics across the political spectrum figured the chief had been handed a well-timed career capper.
But now, in a startling flip-flop of public perception, the man often criticized as too gung ho finds himself publicly flogged for indecision and timidity. In what might have been his parting moment of glory, the most macho cop in America is being portrayed as a wimp.
Friday, Gates held his first press conference since the King verdict. It was, as expected, a high-pressure media circus complete with a now-familiar character outside--the guy with the rainbow hair and the sign: "Gates is a Stupid Clown."
Gates stood his ground. Flanked by uniformed officers, and armed with internal memos, training manuals and comparisons to the military's handling of Operation Desert Storm, he fended off--or evaded--reporters' questions without breaking a sweat.
Calls to Gates' press office on Thursday, the day The Times editorialized that the chief should step down fast, elicited undisguised grunts of contempt for the paper, and flat-out refusals for interviews.
Reached at his home late Thursday night, Gates spoke reluctantly and with anger. If there is a perception that he was ineffectual in what was supposed to be his finest hour, it is a perception created by the media, and this newspaper in particular, he said.
"I spent 36 hours on the street, out there with just my security aide and myself. I'm probably the biggest target in the city of Los Angeles. There were 'Kill Gates' signs all over the place, but I was on the street directing action . . .
"Had I been on the street," Gates continued, "I'd have led the troops right into that intersection. I think everybody knows that except the Los Angeles Times."
In fact, though, it is not just the usual suspects in local politics and the local media piling onto Gates and his command's handling of the riots.
In the last week, the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and other major papers have run articles heavy with criticism of Gates' initial absence from the scene and the way his officers were subsequently deployed.
The Washington Post quoted an unnamed source on Gates' activities in the days before the riots: "It was all PR and no planning." President Bush spent two days touring Southern California this week, and Gates--whom Bush used to invite to the White House--was never seen at the President's side.
Ray Davis, a former Santa Ana police chief, can put himself in Gates' shoes. Although he has been critical of Gates, he feels bad for him.
"I told my wife, it must be a terrible situation, walking away from the LAPD under the circumstances they have now. You're supposed to have accolades . . . These are your moments of glory. I would not want to be Daryl Gates facing what he is now."
For the most part, Gates seems to have reacted with characteristic \o7 sang froid. \f7 Last Sunday's "60 Minutes" showed him swaggering into the fray with reporter Leslie Stahl. Angry citizens got \o7 right in his face \f7 with their complaints. He remained self-assured, unflinching in his crisp uniform with the four silver stars down the collar.
After all, Gates has been under fire from one quarter or another since the day he ascended. As early as the 1982 incident in which he said some blacks might be more susceptible to chokehold fatalities than "normal" people, there was an outcry for him to resign.
One critic back then called him "an insidious cancer aggravating (racial) relationships." Bishop H. H. Brookins hinted that there might be riots if he didn't step down.
"My opinion is that it doesn't matter what he did, he'd still be criticized," Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters said this week. "The longer someone stays in office, the more controversy . . . and his is the highest profile police position in the country. He is sitting in the media capital of the world."