LA Police Chief During Rodney King Riots Dies
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates has died of cancer. He was 83. Gates was a controversial figure who led the department for more than a decade. He's most remembered for his creation of SWAT teams and for the dark days of the 1992 Rodney King riots.
NPR's Mandalit del Barco has more.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Daryl Gates began his career as a driver for legendary LAPD chief William Parker. And he rose through the ranks to lead the department during some of the city's most tumultuous years. Gates once met with NPR to reminisce about his stormy career. He recalled being a field commander in 1965, facing six days of rioting in L.A.'s Watts neighborhood.
(Soundbite of recording)
Mr. DARYL GATES (Former Los Angeles Police Chief): We didn't know what in the hell to do in handling a riot. In Watts, we had people rioting in 54 square miles all over the place. The first night was a disaster. The second night, where we had laid out a plan we thought, was a second night of disaster. And the third night we finally said, okay, now we're going to do it right.
DEL BARCO: Gates said the L.A. cops were outnumbered and outgunned by snipers. But the civil unrest of the times inspired him to change the department's tactics.
Mr. GATES: At that time, Vietnam was in play and there was a lot of activists that were concerned about the war. And we had the Black Panthers. We had all kinds of groups, which tells you, it's indicated we might have some, really, some urban guerilla warfare.
DEL BARCO: Gates consulted with the Marine Corps about their experiences in Vietnam. That led him to help develop a paramilitary-style police unit that became known as SWAT.
Mr. GATES: We had to utilize the very best tactics, most skilled people and we had to use weapons that had not been used by the police in the past.
DEL BARCO: Gates says SWAT was not popular at first, but very effective. Under his leadership, SWAT teams took down the Black Panthers' headquarters in South Central L.A., and SWAT engaged in a deadly shootout with members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the SLA. As police chief from 1978 to 1992, Daryl Gates continued to make headlines.
Mr. LOU CANNON (Author): He was aggressive, but he was also very innovative.
DEL BARCO: Author Lou Cannon has written extensively about the LAPD.
Mr. CANNON: When he was named police chief, Gates was widely seen as one of the most progressive police chiefs in the United States.
DEL BARCO: Cannon credits Gates for helping create SWAT, which became a model for police departments worldwide, but Cannon says the outspoken chief was not without critics or faults. Gates had a long-running feud with Tom Bradley, the city's first African-American mayor.
Mr. CANNON: Gates thought that Bradley was just out to get him, which there was some truth to.
DEL BARCO: And Gates also had a tense relationship with people of color.
Mr. LARRY AUBRY (Columnist, L.A. Sentinel): In terms of black people in L.A., he was not at all popular.
DEL BARCO: Larry Aubry is a longtime columnist for the L.A. Sentinel, an African-American newspaper.
Mr. AUBRY: I mean, he was a very, very much a figure that was not trusted, and he had a very difficult time, apparently, seeing and perceiving people of color as human beings. I mean, he denigrated Latinos and blacks.
DEL BARCO: Frictions between Gates's police department and the community led up to the event that marked the end of his career in 1992.
(Soundbite of rioting)
DEL BARCO: Six days of protests, violent fires and looting followed the acquittal of officers seen on videotape beating motorist Rodney King. Gates told NPR he and other city leaders were caught off-guard by the community's response.
Mr. GATES: They destroyed themselves. They burned down their buildings. They're idiots. And you can use that word, idiots, absolute, total, blithering idiots when it comes to the riot.
DEL BARCO: Gates was criticized for attending a fundraiser for his mayoral campaign when the turmoil erupted in South L.A., and for reacting to the riots too slowly. After they ended, Gates soon retired.
Author Lou Cannon says by then the chief was well past his prime.
Mr. CANNON: The King case and the riots tends to overshadow his accomplishments. I consider him a flawed, great, tragic and honorable figure.
DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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