Former LAPD Chief Gates loved, reviled in the city he policed

This is a photo of former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates at the Los Angeles Police Academy in Elysian Park.
This is a photo of former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates at the Los Angeles Police Academy in Elysian Park.
Natalie Yemenidjian/KPCC

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Former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates died Friday from cancer. He was 83. Gates, the chief from 1978 until 1992, was a major figure in the city’s history – a polarizing man who engendered deep admiration and bitter revulsion. Among Los Angeles police officers, Daryl Gates was a giant. “I thought the guy walked on water," Officer Ossie Crenshaw said as he took a break from working out at the Police Academy in Elysian Park.

“Daryl Gates was an icon," Officer Wilson Wong said. "Daryl Gates will always be remembered as THE chief" even among officers who never knew him, he added.

Gates was always there for officers, Wong said - especially when cops were injured.

“Chief Gates, I remember, was at my bedside."

Crenshaw and Wong joined the department under Gates, and became members of the elite S.W.A.T. unit that the former chief created. It was one of many of Gates' policing methods copied around the country.

Gates was a staunch defender of his troops during the many controversies that plagued the department during his 15 year reign from 1978 until 1992.

"Ya know, you hear this defender of cops. Well, you know what though, if you were wrong, he would tell you you were wrong," S.W.A.T. Officer Rick Anzaldo said.

"The man lived by the do-the-right thing motto."

The view is very different among many of the people the L.A.P.D. patrolled.

Journalist Joe Domanick wrote a book on the L.A.P.D. He said the problem was that Gates would back up his cops no matter what.

“No matter if it was bad shootings, choke hold deaths, things that were inexplicable," Domanick said.

"Shootings of dozens and dozens of unarmed people...when no other city had those kinds of numbers," he said. "He would defend each and every one of them.”

Presented with this legacy during an interview late last year, Daryl Gates shot back.

“That’s just is not true," he said.

Gates said he oversaw policing during a difficult time in the city, as the crack epidemic spread and violence soared.

"We had a very small police department. I had 6,900 hundred police officers and we had lousy equipment," he said. "It was a tough time."

What did he think of recently implemented reforms that brought a more community friendly style of policing.

"Well, if you have enough people, you can be very friendly," Gates said.

Daryl Francis Gates was born and raised in Highland Park to a Mormon mother and an alcoholic father. He joined the U.S. Navy, saw action in the Pacific in World War Two, and returned home to join the police department in 1949.

Gates landed an important early assignment as the driver for the legendary Chief William Parker – a man bent on driving out corruption, but who also had little interest in developing relationships with the increasing black and Latino communities of L.A.

“Gates was his student, pursued this policy and took it to its logical conclusion of sweeps," Domanick said. "They would enter south Los Angeles and arrest every black male on the street.”

Domanick said the policies alienated minority communities so much that when a jury acquitted the police officers who beat Rodney King in 1992, people had had enough.

“Daryl Gates’ legacy to the city of Los Angeles was the 1992 insurrection. The bloodiest, costliest American insurrection of the 20th century.”

Blaming Gates for the riots is unfair, said his supporters. There were many more forces that went into the riots, including poor political leadership and a deep recession.

During his tenure, Gates was known for outlandish statements that he said were taken out of context – as when he told Congress that casual drug users should be shot.

Later, he said that's not what he meant, but he decried drug users as a threat to his officers who fight drug dealers.

"They go out into that shooting war that’s supported by the casual drug user," he said.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky – a sharp critic of the chief when he was a city councilman – said Gates was hardly a reformer.

Yaroslavsky noted that Gatesw opposed dismantling a police intelligence unit, arguing that it tracked dangerous people.

“All of that makes perfectly good sense except that some of the people that they were and had been been monitoring were of absolutely no threat to the community," Yaroslavsky said. "One of those very dangerous people was yours truly. There was a file on me. They denied they had a file on me.”

But Yaroslavsky also praised Gates as a police innovator, creating units like SWAT and specialized anti-gang units, and a man who gave a lot of his time to charity.

Law enforcement across the country respected him. Nancy Reagan praised Gates for developing the D.A.R.E. anti-drug program for kids.

L.A.P.D. Officers like Wilson Wong believes the people who didn't like Gates, didn't like cops.

“You have to have somebody that is going to support you and for that, there always are going to be people who dislike him for that because there are people who dislike police officers."

For L.A.P.D. Lt. Roger Murphy, Gates was a misunderstood man from an earlier generation of hard-drivers.

“They were opinionated, they were strong, they were independent," Murphy said. "He is not of this current political correctness generation if you will. And I think some of that unfortunately came across as insensitivity.”

Gates defended himself and the L.A.P.D. until the end – as in this exchange with one of his sharpest critics, former State Senator Tom Hayden, late last year.

“What the hell do we need reform for? We don’t need reform," Gates said.

"You’re the old era," Hayden countered.

"This is the greatest police department in the country," Gates declared.

It may have been, but political leaders and civil rights activists pressured Gates to retire after the Rodney King beating and the riots for which his department was woefully unprepared. Relations between the chief and political leadership were so frayed, he and Mayor Tom Bradley hadn't even spoken in months before the riots.

Reforms followed Gates' retirement. One placed term limits on Los Angeles Police Chiefs.