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Daryl Gates: The star of his own police show

The chief with the Hollywood looks led the department through dramatic times.

April 18, 2010|By Patt Morrison
  • Gates attends the swearing-in of Bernard C. Parks as police chief in 1997. After retiring, Gates would turn up at smaller LAPD-related events, where he drew extended applause from loyalists.
Gates attends the swearing-in of Bernard C. Parks as police chief in 1997.… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

Plain and simple, the man looked like a Central Casting cop, which in Los Angeles, in Hollywood, was probably the only way the chief of police could look.

The hard angle of the jaw, the eyes that could pin a beetle to a square of cardboard -- Daryl Gates worked it all, as leading man in the civic drama of policing Los Angeles.

Even in his 80s, lean as a piece of beef jerky and more than a dozen years off the job, he was still "the chief," to himself and to some young cops who weren't even in the LAPD when he left in 1992, in a blaze of pique and political crossfire.

For years, his name showed up in rap lyrics and on protest signs, which is not surprising. In a city of anonymous pols and bureaucrats, the police chief, and this chief in particular, was a lightning rod and a rallying point. The LAPD was famous; Gates was its star.

I spent nearly three hours with him about a year ago, probably the last sit-down interview he ever gave. He brought some Starbucks coffee and delicacies and gave me my choice. He was courteous and droll and unrelenting. After my column ran, he e-mailed me often and invited me to dinner sometime.

Daryl Gates' problem was Los Angeles' problem. 1960s L.A., that "white spot" the city once advertised itself to be, looked in the mirror of 1980s L.A. and didn't recognize itself. Highland Park, the working-guy neighborhood where Gates had grown up and lived, had shaded from white into brown. Black L.A. was there in the mirror, too. But the mirrors in Parker Center still reflected white faces, men's faces. Daryl Gates' face.

His tutorial on how to be a police chief began in the front seat of the car he drove for then-Chief William Parker. Gates imbibed from this his own sense of rectitude. His horror of disorder extended to his book tour in New York decades later, when he glared at Manhattan jaywalkers as if they were pickpockets and cutthroats.

I knew a man who spent a bit of time as Gates' driver. The chief insisted that they not park his official car in the red zones reserved for patrol cops and insisted on putting coins in the parking meter.

It was a choice example of what Gates viewed as corruption. His mentor, Parker, emerged from an era when the mayor's cronies sold the answers to police civil service exams. Corruption was cops on the take, shaking down hookers and putting the squeeze on crooked businessmen.

Under Parker, Los Angeles' finest would not owe people money, or take it. They were also not divorced; Gates told me that his own divorce cost him points on a civil service oral exam.

Gates was the last chief to get his job by climbing the civil service ladder. But his was also a Horatio Alger story, in the sense that those stories are always about a powerful man -- in this case, Parker -- taking a shine to some promising kid and making him his protégé.


Gates became chief in 1978, just as a former fellow cop, Tom Bradley, was into his second term as L.A.'s mayor -- the first black mayor of a big non-black city.

The police corruption of the 1980s and '90s wasn't the old corruption of the purse. Johnny Carson used to express his mock astonishment that L.A. cops, unlike cops elsewhere, didn't take tips.

It was, rather, a corruption of power. Power over the powerless, and abuse of authority, in the name of authority. It was making arrests for "DWB" (driving while black) and references to "NHI" murders (no humans involved -- meaning minority-on-minority killings). It was swoop in, sweep out, lock up. CRASH took on drugs and gangs; SWAT took on the armed and unruly.

The citizens of Los An- geles supplied Gates with a rationale for this kind of policing; indeed, they made some of it necessary. Taxpaying Angelenos wanted aggressive policing on the cheap. Don't raise my taxes -- do your job. Just keep those people out of my life. Keep that thin blue line thin.

So the beat patrols of New York or Chicago weren't the L.A. model. Here, it was the basic-car plan, a kind of strike force on wheels -- cops were visible zooming by, zooming in when somebody called for help.

Daryl Gates made this his LAPD. He also made quick-response a hallmark, and some of his department's special operations became the national gold standard. Every department in every town in the nation wanted some of that LAPD status and Hollywood style.

The relationship between police and press changed, too. Cop reporters had once carried their own special gold LAPD shields. Now they carried tape recorders and quoted every slight and slip with merciless accuracy.

In return, Gates was never loath to offer up zinger sound bites about the city's political leadership and its press. The demands escalated for community policing. But they didn't come from communities Gates or his officers necessarily knew; many of his officers didn't even live in L.A. anymore -- they either couldn't afford to or didn't want to.

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