LOS ANGELES — Daryl F. Gates, the blunt former Los Angeles police chief who waged war on violent gangs and skirmished with city leaders until his handling of the Rodney King police beating and ensuing riots forced him to retire, died Friday of cancer. He was 83.
Gates died at his Newport Beach home with his family at his side, according to a police statement. His brother said recently that the former chief had bladder cancer that had spread.
One of the most polarizing figures in modern law enforcement, Gates served as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department for 14 years beginning in 1978, an era of tumultuous change as the nation’s second-largest city faced a surge in well-armed gangs, a burgeoning illegal drug trade and growing racial conflict.
He initially ran a police force that was enjoying a reputation as the embodiment of the professional, just-the-facts “Dragnet” mythology. Yet he left office with city blocks in ashes amid accusations he allowed a pattern of abuse of minorities to flourish among the rank-and-file.
“He was a man of deep convictions,” said former police chief William Bratton, who left the department last year. “He was very happy to stand up for them, whether you liked them or not. And he enjoyed being in the middle of the bull’s-eye. He thrived on it.”
Gates’ critics and admirers remain as far apart as ever.
“I don’t remember much that was good about him,” said Ramona Ripston, the longtime executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “I think in many ways he gave policing a bad name. He certainly didn’t believe in civil liberties.”
Others saw a cop’s cop who sought to protect his department from political interference and corruption, even though his “shoot-from-the-lip” style repeatedly stirred anger and kept him at odds with the city’s first black mayor, former police lieutenant Tom Bradley.
“He understood why it was important to basically insulate the department from the political process. He guarded it very jealously,” said City Councilman Bernard Parks, an officer under Gates and chief from 1997 until 2002.
Gates was credited with developing the policing plan, including a terrorism task force, that brought off the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics with not so much as a traffic jam. He also created the department’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., program for youth.
While on the command staff in 1972, he formed Los Angeles’ first Special Weapons and Tactics Team or SWAT. He shut down an intelligence unit in 1983 after learning it was spying on the ACLU and other organizations.
But police actions and some of Gates’ brash comments overshadowed his accomplishments. In 1979, two officers shot and killed Eulia Love, a 39-year-old black woman who brandished a butcher knife as they approached her about an overdue gas bill.
Street sweeps in the 1980s meant to battle growing gangs and drug dealers stirred community animosity for rounding up thousands of youths, and excessive-force lawsuits against the department cost the city millions.
In 1982, Gates apologized 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.”
He told a congressional committee chaired by then-Sen. Joseph Biden in 1990 that casual drug users should be shot.
Gates’ career began to unravel with the March 3, 1991, beating of King, which was videotaped by a man in a nearby apartment after the black motorist was pulled over for speeding. King suffered 56 baton blows, kicks and repeated shocks from a Taser.
Shortly after the tape aired, Gates said that even if the officers were found to be out of line, it was an aberration, a statement he later admitted was a mistake.
“Not speaking boldly of the horror I felt proved to be, in the final analysis, a significant error on my part — in dealing with a crisis that would only grow worse,” Gates wrote in his autobiography, “Chief: My Life in the LAPD.”
An independent review of the department released later that year found the LAPD had a significant problem of excessive force aggravated by racism and bias, and under pressure to resign, Gates announced his retirement
On April 29, 1992, just two months short of Gates’ leaving, a jury acquitted the officers of most charges in the King beating, 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. Fires set by rioters reduced entire blocks of the city to cinders.
Gates came under intense criticism from city officials who said officers were slow to respond. The mayor said Gates had “brought Los Angeles to the brink of disaster just to satisfy his own ego.”
Since, then Los Angeles has instituted a major recommendation of the independent review that called for limits on a chief’s tenure. Chiefs are now appointed to a five-year term, renewable once.
He is survived by brother, retired LAPD captain Steven Gates, and three children.