Daryl Gates Went and Died: A Career Retrospective of L.A.’s Unrepentant Police Chief


“That Daryl Gates was a real motherfucker, wasn’t he?” someone said to me yesterday. To be honest, I didn’t know too much about the guy, though I’ve always assumed I wouldn’t often be siding with the police. “What’d he do now?” someone else chimed in from across the room. “He went and died.”

It’s true, he did: Gates, the Los Angeles police chief during the beating of Rodney King and subsequent riots in 1992, is dead at 83. And so the obituaries are flooding in, admitting that yes, this was a “controversial” or even “reviled” man (also “loved”). Polarizing, to be sure. But too often, an obituary of a widely despised figure will settle for only one vaguely nasty story or quote, ostensibly out of respect. But what about the historical record? Nothing can make people tiptoe around a legacy like death, leading to a lot of second-guessing, euphemisms and thoughts like, “Well, this man had a family and I’m sure they loved him very much.” As it turns out, motherfuckers have families, too.

The police union, of course, had only kind words: “Chief Gates was a truly devoted public servant who committed his life to improving the lives of others in Los Angeles. He was a man of courage and character who had a deep commitment to the rule of law, with a deep pride of the LAPD.”

But overall, it seems Gates made his bed. And though he’s sleeping in it now, that doesn’t negate the man’s many questionable words and actions:

  • Serving as police chief from 1978 to 1992, Gates weathered much of the department’s roughest moments, but was also known to take a break. On the first night of the riots on May 4, 1992, he attended a political fundraiser. “There are going to be situations where people are going to go without assistance,” he said. “That’s just the facts of life. There are not enough of us to be everywhere.” After his reign, the city imposed term limits on its police chiefs.
  • Loyal to a fault, Gates was known for defending his officers regardless of the facts. “No matter if it was bad shootings, choke hold deaths, things that were inexplicable,” said Joe Domanick, who wrote a book on the L.A.P.D. “Shootings of dozens and dozens of unarmed people… when no other city had those kinds of numbers. He would defend each and every one of them.”
  • Known above all else for his unchained mouth — always taken out of context, he would say — Gates once told the Senate Judiciary Committee that drug users should be taken out and shot. When asked about his officers utilizing choke holds on suspects, Gates famously put on his doctor hat, declaring, “‘It seems to me that we may be finding that in some blacks when it is applied, the veins or the arteries do not open as fast as they do on normal people.”
  • Accusations of corruption are not hard to find either, and in fact, LA Observed has put a few on display, including charges of spying and sexual coercion:

There were undercover officers assigned to sleep with women to gather political information that went to Gates, who spent 45 minutes to several hours each week on his spy files…

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Cay Johnston has much more on “Daryl Gates’ real legacy” and his unwavering God-like rule of the department.

Just last year, Gates remained steadfast against change: “What the hell do we need reform for? We don’t need reform.” And so he took that attitude to the grave.