They say that if you can't say anything good about somebody, you shouldn't say anything at all. This may be a short entry.
Yet I don't have any words to malign Daryl Gates. He stood in opposition to a lot of his peers who came down on him hard in the wake of his oversight of the police beating heard around the world. Rodney King and Daryl Gates are a pair whose lives are intertwined in the public consciousness - a consciousness which has slept for quite a while. After Gates came Williams. After Williams came Parks after Parks came Bratton. There's a new guy in charge today since Bratton left, and I don't even know his name.
But Gates' LAPD is the LAPD of the Batterram, of SWAT, of DARE, of CRASH. Before Gates modernized and started recruiting from all around the country, including for God knows what reason, Alabama. The LAPD lived under Ed Davis. Davis was easy to hate. Davis could easily substitute in my mind for any irrational defender of Dixie, but then again I was a kid. Gates was rational. Gates was disciplined. Gates was a hardnose and Gates had black cops. Not a huge amount, and famously, many of them were meter maids under a new recruitment program. But no matter what the weather, Gates had a program.
Sometime his program didn't work. Sometimes it worked to a scary degree. The LAPD as everyone knows it, paramilitary was created by Gates. He got the hardware out there, including most notoriously, the Batterram. But for me it was Blue Thunder that most characterized the sort of feelings I got most viscerally.
Almost every weekend, where I grew up in 90016, it seemed like there would be some kind of robbery and police action on Saturday night. Ice Cube wrote a rap song called Ghetto Bird that described the situation. Gates ran the helicopters with their powerful spotlights out to crime scenes like there was no tomorrow. Being under the huge kleiglights of the modern helos gave one the kind of Big Brother feeling that had no equal. You were the target. The helicopters were loud and they flew low. They rattled windows and woke children from sleep. When they flashed on your house you knew that a foot pursuit was in progress. The public transit bus had a number on its roof. Your neighborhood was a sector on a grid for air surveillance.
We used to pretend to have guns in those Bruce Lee days. We would aim and shoot with broomsticks at the police helicopters flying over us in the daytime. They would circle, looking for somebody. We could see them looking at us. Yeah. We hated the pigs. They wouldn't let us ride our minibikes on the street. They took our nunchucks and threatened us with juvy.
If you can unseal my juvenile record, you'd find that. I was told by my parents in no uncertain terms not to ask the judge why Pep Boys could sell minibikes if they were illegal to ride on the street. They were obviously too fast to ride on the sidewalk. Who did they think we were, suicidal? So I shut up and was forgiven.
Gates had his own adjective. It was 'embattled'. It seemed like there was nothing he could do without raising the ire of my fraction of the public. He initiated the chokehold in response to his claim that suspects on PCP were immune to pain. Somebody died, or at least that's what I remember. Some wrongful death suits went on for years in our political memory. Gates gave no quarter to gangbangers. Whole neighborhoods became unsafe for civilians due to the battles between Gates' cops and those perceived to be gang members and affiliates. He initiated sweeps where your hangout became no-man's land, sweeps with arrest percentages in the 2s and 3s. You'd get in the system simply for being there, detained and let go - like human fly fishing. It earned him no sympathy, no friends and no cooperation. Everything Gates did was by the book, with no room for warm and fluffy. LA had no beat cops, no friendly cops, because there was no way on earth he could hire enough for them to leave their squad cars.
Every criticism of Gates ultimately came down to that controversial and unavoidable calculation. LA taxpayers would never spend enough on hiring officers such that the ratio of cops to people would be comparable to other big cities in the East and Midwest. We joke about donuts, but there were no fat cops in LA. They were soldiers in patrol cars, and they didn't get out of those cars in 'hostile territory' for no good reason. There was never a friendly Irish 'top o' the marnin t ye laddie'. It was 'put your hands where I can see them, sir'. Sir with a sneer.
I've often told folks that I had been detained something on the order of 27 times between the time I was 15 and 30 in LA. I was cited 3 or 4 of those times. I came to know the excuses by rote. Well I'm running a check on you because there's a Michael Bowen who just escaped from jail in Chino. Gee officer, this is the third time. Then the look that says, OK you know the drill don't you wiseguy. They hold up their maglites and check out my forearms for jailhouse tattoos, and let me drive away with a warning.
Back in my post-buppie politically radical days, I would sit in my beater in Beverly Hills parked on a side street and wait to see how long it would take some cop to tell me that I was in the wrong neighborhood and should go home. I do those kind of things, you know. I don't take anybody's word for it. I recognized the difference between the LAPD and the Beverly Hills cops, and the Sheriff's Deputies and California Highway Patrol as well. The LAPD was on a mission. The BHPD was legendarily polite. The CHP actually cared about your safety. The Sheriff's deputies were not to be trifled with, but encounters were rare. None of them were the cowboys of the notorious Hawthorne PD. Whatever could be said about Gates, he tolerated no rogues.
Hawthorne, back when I was growing up, was from my perspective, a 'white trash border zone'. Between the 'hood where I grew up and quiet upscale beach cities where I live now were two towns where our very own rednecks lived, Hawthorne and Lawndale. If I remember correctly, Torrance, immediately south of Hawthorne was one of the last places where racially restrictive covenants were defeated during the Civil Rights Movement here on the West Coast. It might have been Hawthorne, but who wants to live in Hawthorne? Lawndale is still living down its reputation. Hawthorne has since been overrun by blacks and latinos of all sorts. Legendarily Don Jackson, a black officer in the Hawthorne PD who has since changed his name to Diop Kamau organized stings once he was run off the force. This crusader has since dropped racial revenge from his agenda and serves the public trust in what I consider to be more honorable manner. But everybody has got to get through their rage. Jackson had plenty good reasons.
After Rodney King, I chased down reality with the same vigor as I loitered in Beverly Hills. I found cops doing their jobs. Good, important jobs. Long before Gates stepped down and Williams took over, I paid more attention to the politics of policing and I recognized the distance between public opinion and police policy - I recognized how race blurred the picture and ultimately served to make the police a proxy between people who didn't know each other, but trusted in stereotypes to hate each other. Gates didn't care about being the politician who could smooth things out, and so there was never any such thing as community policing under his rule. That is something that had to evolve and could only do so after Gates was out on his ear.
Daryl Gates is dead and has been politically dead for a long time, to the benefit of LA politics. I missed the Riots and what Reardon did to fix things. But today I see a much less tense Los Angeles over his dead body.