On Daryl F. Gates' last day as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1992, Times staff writer Sheryl Stolberg asked him how he thought history would view his tenure. "I think history will take care of itself," he said.
By the time of his death at the age of 83, it had. Almost two decades after Los Angeles erupted in the worst U.S. rioting of the 20th century, a conflagration both ignited and unsuccessfully extinguished by Gates' LAPD, the verdict of history is largely in -- and if it suggests that Gates wasn't necessarily guilty on all counts, there is no chance of a pardon. While an honorable man, a devoted public servant and a capable crime-fighter who might have made a decent police chief in an earlier era, Gates was a hidebound, egomaniacal figure who was so wrong for the job at the time he served in it that he nearly destroyed the city he was charged with protecting.
Gates, a Navy veteran who served in the Pacific during World War II, became chief of the LAPD in 1978. He ran the department largely in the style of his model and mentor, legendary Chief William H. Parker, for whom Gates had once served as chauffeur. Yet even while the LAPD stayed much the same, the city around it was changing fast. Far larger and more diverse than it had been in Parker's day, it experienced a crack cocaine epidemic early in Gates' tenure that ravaged poor communities and gave rise to a new kind of murderous gang culture. Gates' response was to turn the police force into an organization that even the most hardened criminals would fear.
An incident in 1985 serves as an illustration both of Gates' character and that of the department he led. After undercover officers bought cocaine at a suspected "rock house" in Pacoima, Gates rolled out his newest weapon in the war on crime: a six-ton tank with a 14-foot battering ram in the front. With Gates in the passenger seat, the ram smashed through the wall of the house, narrowly missing two women and three children who had been eating ice cream inside. There was no one else at home, and an extensive search turned up only a small amount of marijuana and no weapons. The raid outraged community activists and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, but Gates, characteristically, was unapologetic.
That, in a nutshell, was the kind of policing Daryl Gates stood for: an officer in a tank, shielded behind steel walls from the community he serves, knocking down the wall instead of knocking at the door. Police had long complained that officers sometimes felt outgunned by criminals, but it was Gates who did something about it. He created the Special Weapons and Tactics team, a unit replicated nationwide, to bring military precision and force to police operations. Meanwhile, he treated tough neighborhoods as enemy-occupied territory. His officers were trained to bring overwhelming force to bear, to stay in their patrol cars rather than fraternize with the enemy, to focus on arrests and sweeps rather than crime prevention.
This was, after all, the style that had worked for Parker. Yet in other big cities, a very different strategy was taking hold. Known as “community policing,” it emphasized partnerships with community and governmental organizations, communication between officers and people on the beats they patrolled, and new methods of pinpointing and ameliorating trouble spots. As L.A.'s top politicians, led by Mayor Tom Bradley, grew ever more insistent that Gates adopt these methods, the chief only clung harder to tradition -- and because it was then impossible to fire a police chief without cause, there was nothing Bradley or anyone else could do about it. Meanwhile, a cancer was growing within the LAPD, one that would metastasize on March 3, 1991.
The Rodney King beating
In minority communities already boiling with suppressed rage over perceived mistreatment and racism by the LAPD, including inflammatory comments from Gates himself, the savage beating of Rodney G. King by four white officers seemed like confirmation of their worst suspicions. King was hardly a sympathetic figure -- a drunk driver who resisted arrest. Yet the response, videotaped from a nearby apartment in Lake View Terrace, was so brutal and unnecessary that it shocked the world.