At 82, Daryl F. Gates still looks as if he could pass the training physical for the Los Angeles Police Department, which he joined as a rookie 60 years ago and ran as chief for 14 years. When he says that his name was on the front page of The Times more than any other Californian during those years, he's probably right. Gates made headlines because he made waves. His legendary set-tos with politicians and the Police Commission were combustible theater. His tenure as chief overlapped Tom Bradley's as mayor, and there was no love lost between the two; by the 1992 riots, they weren't on speaking terms. Gates' LAPD career carried him from driver for Chief William H. Parker to Parker's right- hand man and heir. He was the last chief to earn the job through the civil service system; since Gates, chiefs have been appointed, with term limits. Now there's talk of lifting those term limits so the current chief, William J. Bratton, could stay on for five more years -- making his tenure one year longer than Gates'. When we met, he brought me a cup of Starbucks, and before I asked the first question, he referred to a 1982 Times story about his plan to ban one of two LAPD chokeholds. In seven years, 16 people had died in police chokeholds, 12 of them African American. Gates told The Times then he suspected some blacks had a medical condition that made them more susceptible than -- and this stirred an outcry for his resignation that never disappeared -- "normal people."
I'm going to use two tape recorders because I don't trust machines.
[The 1982] Times reporter really did me a very great injustice, and from that point on, I recorded everybody.
Obviously I didn't do a good job explaining myself. That was almost the most painful time of my time as chief, because it was totally out of context from what I had intended. And since that time, science has proved what I said is true. We had gone to doctors -- I had an assistant chief who did the research and that idiot wouldn't come forward and verify [what] he had found. It was a painful thing.
What they hit me on was "normal." I meant it just as you have a "normal" temperature. That became, "Gee, Chief, are we driving black and normal cars?" It was hard for me. I was, quite frankly, very well liked in the black community. Even the gang members liked me. I'd roll up in a gang area; they'd say, "Hey, Chief, how are you? Good to see you." I'd scheduled a talk to some kids in an elementary school in the black community. And [the principal] called and told my secretary, "We'd rather not have the chief." That really hurt, really hurt. Then I got all the activists coming down and yelling at me -- all because of The Times.
Do you still subscribe?
Oh, yeah. There were great people [at The Times] like our cartoonist, [Paul] Conrad. He and I didn't agree on anything, but we went to baseball games together. This was a world-class newspaper, and I see it now and it's just very sad. But I get it, and I read it every day.
Even people who didn't like you sympathized about your son, Scott, and his years of drug problems.
I got thousands of letters, horribly pathetic situations like mine. The havoc that drugs have played on our population and our young people, it's horrible. There's hardly a family out there during that period of time who hadn't had a brother, father, son, daughter who got hung up on drugs. [Scott] has been clean for quite some time, but here's a young man who had everything going for him. He was big and handsome and athletic, and drugs just killed him. I probably spent a fortune on him -- in and out of rehabilitation, the personal tragedy, the difficult times with him. He was clean for about 12 years and doing pretty well, and then went back into it for a while, and now he's back out and OK, but he's just devastated his life and those around him.
You first took the chief exam in 1966. Just what was it about the job?
When you come on the department and you look at the chief's job and you look at the guy who is chief -- it's like God, Parker was -- and you look at all the other jobs in law enforcement, and you think to yourself: I wouldn't want to be head of the FBI; I wouldn't want to be anything else but chief of the LAPD.
I heard that one of your first orders as chief was "You don't have to wear those hats anymore" -- and the rank and file loved you for that.
When I was assistant chief in operations, I'd roll up on a call and I'd see these officers run back to the car and put their hats on: Hats are part of the uniform. These poor officers were diverting their attention from the incident because they're concerned about not wearing their hats. So when I became chief, I said the hats go.