Daryl F. Gates, the rookie cop who rose from driver for a legendary chief to become chief himself, leading the Los Angeles Police Department during a turbulent 14-year period that found him struggling to keep pace with a city undergoing dramatic racial and ethnic changes, died Friday. He was 83.
Gates died at his Dana Point home after a short battle with cancer, the LAPD announced.
The controversial chief, whose tenure ran from 1978 to 1992, spent his entire four-decade career at the LAPD, where he won national attention for innovative approaches to crime fighting and prevention: He instituted military-style SWAT teams to handle crises and the gentler DARE classroom program to prevent drug abuse. These initiatives, emulated by police departments across the United States, and other advances, such as a communications system that reduced police response times, bolstered his reputation as an exemplar of modern law enforcement. President George H.W. Bush called him an "all-American hero."
A proud emblem of progress to some, he was a disturbing symbol of stagnation to others. When the city went up in flames over the acquittal of four white officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King, he was castigated as a leader out of touch with the changing realities of the city, yet to the end he remained righteous about his authority to police it.
Faced with a proliferation of illegal drugs and street violence, he hammered gangs with police sweeps and broke into crack dens with a steel battering ram on an armored vehicle. He made no apologies for declaring that casual drug users should be shot.
By turns charming and brash, articulate and tactless, he generated controversy with gaffes about Latinos, blacks and Jews, most famously with a remark about blacks faring poorly under police chokeholds because their physiology was different from that of "normal" people. Fiercely loyal to his rank and file, he clashed frequently with elected officials, particularly when they slashed his budget or meddled in department discipline. He vowed he would never be bullied by "crummy politicians."
Gates "fought vigorously to make sure the chief's duties were not encroached upon. That comes from understanding the struggles Bill Parker went through moving the department out of corruption," said City Councilman and former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks. He was referring to William H. Parker, the tough, reform-minded chief in the 1950s and '60s, who became Gates' mentor.
Parks said it was important to remember that the vilification of Gates after the King beating was not universal and that his accomplishments as chief mattered to large segments of the city long after he left the department.
"If you go to areas of the Valley, police organizations, officers' funerals . . . he gets the loudest ovation," Parks noted recently. "I've never seen a situation where . . . 18 years after retirement, officers who never worked with him cheer him as chief of police."
Yet others just as vehemently argue that Gates' strengths were outweighed by his weaknesses, particularly his failure to evolve with a region transformed by demographic explosions. Between 1980 and 1990, the population of Latinos in Los Angeles County grew by 62.2%, and Asians and Pacific Islanders by 107.5%. Meanwhile, the white population was contracting, dropping by 8.5%.
Although the African American population grew far more slowly during that decade, its political leadership had matured. Los Angeles had black representatives in Congress, the state Legislature and the City Council. In 1973, Tom Bradley, the former LAPD lieutenant and councilman, united a diverse coalition of constituencies to become Los Angeles' first African American mayor. Gates had a fractious relationship with Bradley throughout his tenure as chief.
"This L.A. was a changing city. . . . He never made the adjustment to the new L.A.," Ramona Ripston, the longtime head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said recently of Gates.
In 1991, the videotaped beating of King was replayed around the world, shattering the carefully nurtured myth that the LAPD of "Dragnet" fame -- professional, honest and humane -- never stooped to such behavior. Gates was slow to criticize his officers' handling of the incident and was missing from his command post when the officers' acquittal provoked the worst urban violence in decades, causing at least 53 deaths and more than $1 billion in property damage. With characteristic defiance, he rejected the inevitable calls for his resignation. It was not the first time that critics had demanded his ouster, but it would be the last.
Gates' combative style can be traced to a hardscrabble childhood in Glendale, where he was born Aug. 30, 1926. When the Depression hit a few years later, his father, a plumber, took to drinking and frequently disappeared from home. His mother found a job in a dress factory, leaving Gates and his two brothers, Lowell and Stephen, to fend for themselves.
Police often barged into their ramshackle home looking for the senior Gates, whose debts and alcoholic behavior got him into trouble. The harsh treatment of his father gave Gates a dim view of law enforcement as "just a plague on society," he wrote in his 1992 memoir, "Chief: My Life in the LAPD." He had so little respect for the police that when he was 16 he punched an officer for writing him a parking ticket and was hauled to jail. The charges were dropped when he reluctantly apologized.
In 1943, after graduating from Franklin High School in Highland Park, Gates joined the Navy and served two years as "a plain old seaman" on a destroyer in the Pacific. After his discharge, he enrolled at Pasadena City College and married a classmate, Wanda Hawkins. He was taking pre-law courses at USC when he learned that she was pregnant. Unsure how he was going to support a family, he did not greet the news happily.
When a friend suggested that he join the Los Angeles Police Department, he said there was no way he would ever become "a dumb cop." He changed his mind when he realized that earning the then-considerable sum of $290 a month to train at the Police Academy while continuing his USC studies was too good to refuse. On Sept. 16, 1949, he joined the force.
He started out in the traffic division, working as an accident investigator until he was transferred to patrol. He completed his rookie year still intending to be a lawyer when he was tapped to serve as driver and bodyguard for Parker, newly installed as chief. Over the next 16 years, Parker shaped the department into one of the most highly regarded in the country.
Parker talked a lot as Gates drove around the city, and Gates listened, soon earning a reputation as the chief's fair-haired boy. "What I received during my 15 months with him turned out to be more than a primer on policing," Gates wrote. "It became a tutorial on how to be chief."
When he returned to the field, Gates worked juvenile patrol, then vice, before winning promotion to sergeant in 1955. He studied hard for every promotion exam and earned top scores that enabled him to make lieutenant in 1959 and captain in 1963.
In the spring of 1965 he rose to inspector, a position now called commander. He was overseeing patrol officers in the Watts area when long-festering racial tensions surfaced that summer.
The Watts riots were sparked by the drunk-driving arrest of a black man named Marquette Frye. When his mother attempted to intervene, a crowd gathered. After several unsuccessful attempts by officers to disperse the crowd, rocks and bottles began to fly and the officers pulled out. Angry mobs began to spring up throughout the area. "We had no idea how to deal with this," Gates later said. Six days of violence left 34 people dead, more than 1,000 injured and 600 buildings damaged or destroyed.
Parker died in 1966. Under Parker's successor, Tom Reddin, Gates was promoted to deputy chief in 1968. The following year, under Chief Ed Davis, Gates became assistant chief.
In 1970, five years after his first marriage ended, he married Sima Lalich, a United Air Lines flight attendant. She filed for divorce in 1994.
Amid the turmoil of the late 1960s, Gates had, at Reddin's request, begun to develop a special unit to respond to crises. Gates recruited 60 of the department's top marksmen and called the team SWAT. He originally meant the acronym to stand for Special Weapons Attack Team, but then-Deputy Chief Davis thought "attack" was impolitic, so Gates changed the name to Special Weapons and Tactics.
SWAT's first test came in a shootout at a Black Panther stronghold on Central Avenue on Dec. 8, 1969. "We were roundly criticized for our brutal activity," Gates noted later, but the SWAT team weathered the controversy and went on to prove its value by resolving other crises without bloodshed.
When Davis resigned to enter politics, Gates applied for the job, coming in second behind an outside candidate on the Civil Service exam. When credited for his years of experience, the 29-year LAPD veteran moved into first place and was approved by the Police Commission despite concerns that he would flout civilian oversight. He was sworn in as the LAPD's 49th chief on March 28, 1978.
His troubles began almost immediately.