Friday, April 16, 2010

The Two Sides of Daryl Gates That I Saw

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The on set camera crew and sound technicians had long since departed from the sound stage at KCBS and the lights had dimmed but we set there for what seemed like endless hours afterwards engaging in bare knuckles, heated debate. My at one moment fierce opponent and at another moment jovial associate was former LAPD chief Daryl Gates. We were co-commentators for the station during the O.J. Simpson trial. On and off the set, we went at it on everything from the Rodney King beating, the L.A. riots, the LAPD’s war on gang and drug violence, police misconduct and shootings, and of course, the Simpson trial. These were the issues that tore Los Angeles for a decade before and did more to poison relations between the LAPD and minority communities, especially African-Americans, than any other. Our debates were so intense that we continued the battle of words as we walked to our cars in the parking lot. After a while this became a routine, we’d spar on the set, and continue sparring as we walked to our cars.

There were moments when Gates would sigh in exasperation that I and other critics just didn’t understand what he had to face running a department that was under resourced, got little political and public support, and yet was expected to be a kinder, gentler department while battling a spiraling gang, drug and violence problem. I listened to his heart felt pleas that he sincerely tried to make change, even reform. He repeatedly cited the number of officers that he disciplined and terminated for misconduct and other offenses, but said that his hands were tied by city officials, police union, and the public who wanted more and tougher policing, and were loathe to see officers removed. He cited the community policing programs that he tried to put in place. Yet he pleaded nothing he did seemed to matter. He and the LAPD were still relentlessly maligned.

This was no play act or parking lot revisionism of his LAPD role to convince me that underneath the tough cop’s cop exterior he was a marshmallow soft reformer. Gates passionately believed that he had done the best that he could against the odds to move the LAPD into the modern era. As we parted, I always wondered which Daryl Gates I was talking too, the maligned, misunderstood reformer, or the chief whose name was synonymous with a department that in the decade immediately preceding the King beating and the riots, had become the nation’s poster police agent for a dysfunctional, brutal, racist, shoot first, police department.

During its big, bad years, the perception, and more often than not reality, was that the LAPD was in every sense an occupying army in South L.A. Officers went where they pleased, did what they pleased and cracked heads when they pleased, all with the blind-eye acquiescence of city officials. Two massive riots, the King beating, the Rampart scandal, the Christopher and Webster commissions and a federal consent decree all made it obvious that the LAPD had to change.

Gates stood at the center of the tumultuous events that engulfed the LAPD. He was depending on whom one talked to the top cop who expanded and popularized the kick butt, SWAT teams, or the top cop who devised and expanded innovative, programs such as DARE, which served as a national police model for drug prevention and education.
Gates was well aware that the years when the LAPD carried his indelible stamp were now well past. Los Angeles city officials talked incessantly about reform and change. There was a new African-American chief. The department was now under intense federal scrutiny, and soon a consent decree mandating a total top to bottom overhaul of its policies and practices on the use of deadly force, minority hiring and promotions, and the handling of misconduct complaints. He seemed resigned to the fact that time and the department had passed him by; a time when the LAPD reigned over a city that was predominantly white, with an insular city government, and where the police were roundly hailed by homeowners as heroes. That Los Angeles had rapidly faded into the past, and had morphed into one of the nation’s most diverse, that demanded accountability and transparency. This meant a police force that had to change with it.

Gates, then, was truly a man of another time. His pleas and sighs of exasperation over the problems that still haunted him as we talked and walked to our cars told me much about a man who still deeply believed that he had tried to do what was best for the city, despite everything. This was the two sides of Daryl Gates that I saw as we smiled, shook hands, exchanged a laugh and walked away from each other those nights in the studio parking lot.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst and the host of the Hutchinson Report on KTYM AM and KPFK Pacifica Radio Los Angeles.