LA police chief during 1992 riots dies

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Daryl F. Gates, the polarizing former police chief whose 14-year tenure ended amid widespread criticism over his department’s response to the city’s deadly 1992 riots, died Friday. He was 83.

Gates died at his Newport Beach home, according to a police department statement.

Current Police Chief Charlie Beck announced earlier this year that Gates was seriously ill. A February blog posting attributed to his brother, Steve Gates, said he had bladder cancer that had spread to a bone near his hip.

Gates was a “one-in-a-million human being,” Beck said in a statement. “He inspired others to succeed and, in doing so, changed the landscape of law enforcement around the world.”

“He’s the end of an era at the LAPD,” Joe Hicks, a former executive director of the city’s Human Relations Commission, told KNX NewsRadio. “I came to respect him a great deal … I’m really saddened that the chief has died. I came to believe he was a good man who did what he thought was right.”

A tart-tongued career cop with a short fuse and a penchant for making controversial statements, Gates was a flashpoint for controversy long before the riots that broke out after four white police officers were acquitted of most charges in the beating of black motorist Rodney King.

He once told a congressional committee that drug users should be shot.

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Although often at odds with civil rights activists, the mayor and other political figures, Gates was well-liked by rank-and-file police officers and could be charming when he was in his element. He was responsible for numerous police department successes that came to be overlooked when he was forced into early retirement after the riots.

He was credited with developing the policing plan that brought off the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics with not so much as a traffic jam, let alone serious criminal disturbances. He also created the department’s popular Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., program for youth.

As a member of the Police Department’s command staff in 1972, he formed Los Angeles’ first Special Weapons and Tactics Team or SWAT, an achievement he pointed to with pride throughout his life.

He also shut down one of the police department’s intelligence units in 1983 after learning officers were using it to spy on the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations.

Minority groups several times called for his resignation after incendiary comments they interpreted as racist. As early as 1982, Gates came under fire for saying more blacks died than whites during the use of carotid chokeholds because “the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people.”

Forensic experts said there was no such difference between races and a black community leader said the only reason blacks died more frequently was because the chokehold was used on them more often than on whites.

Gates later apologized.

In 1991, when a policewoman was killed in the line of duty, Gates labeled her accused assailant as “an El Salvadoran drunk who doesn’t belong here.”

Gates’ police career began to unravel with the 1991 beating of King, which was videotaped by a bystander after King was pulled over for speeding. Audiotapes of the officers making racist remarks about the incident were released and the videotape of the prolonged beating televised.

Although he criticized the officers’ actions, Gates dismissed them as an aberration. Critics said they represented a pattern of abuse directed at minorities that had been allowed to flourish for years under Gates’ watch.

Under pressure to resign, Gates announced his retirement in the months following the beating. He was just two months short of leaving when the four officers were acquitted on April 29, 1992, a verdict that triggered one of the worst outbreaks of civil unrest in Los Angeles history.

Four days of rioting throughout the sprawling city left 55 people dead, more than 2,000 injured and property damage totaling $1 billion. Entire blocks of the city were reduced to cinders by fires the rioters had set.

Gates came under intense criticism from the mayor, fire chief and others who said his officers were slow to respond to the violence. Mayor Tom Bradley said Gates had “brought Los Angeles to the brink of disaster just to satisfy his own ego.”

Gates shrugged off the criticism, calling his department’s response to the riots “beautiful” and blaming underlings for what errors he did acknowledge. An investigative panel later faulted him for failing to properly prepare the department for such trouble.

After retiring, Gates worked briefly as a radio talk-show host and later as a consultant for various companies.

He also wrote the memoir “Chief: My Life in the LAPD.”

Years after his retirement, he was still responding to his critics.

“There were two beatings. There was one of Rodney King, and then there was the beating of the Los Angeles Police Department. And that one lasted a whole year,” he told The Associated Press in 2002.

He called the rioters “hoodlums” and said they were out to loot and steal with little concern for Rodney King.

He was no more forgiving of politicians, the media, police reformers or King himself, whom he called “a no-good S.O.B. parolee who has never been able to find himself ever since.”

A month before he retired, Gates led his last Los Angeles Police Academy graduation ceremony. The crowd cheered him, guards saluted and a band played “Swinging Gates,” a song written in his honor.

Gates’ 43-year career with the LAPD began in 1949, not long after a two-year stint with the Navy during World War II.

A Glendale native and University of Southern California graduate, he was mentored by legendary Chief William Parker. He became chief in 1978.

Gates’ personal life, like his career, was sometimes tumultuous. His marriage ended in divorce and his son struggled for years with drug abuse, suffering an overdose during the 1992 riots.

In addition to his brother, who is a retired LAPD captain, Gates is survived by two children.


AP Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch contributed to this story.

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