Law & Disorder in Los Angeles

Report of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department

by the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department
228 pp.

'Daryl Gates: A Portrait of Frustration'

by Bella Stumbo
Los Angeles Times

          “I have a memory as long as forever.” —Daryl F. Gates1


Rodney Glenn King is a big man—225 pounds draped uneasily over a six foot, three-inch frame. His curriculum vitae is not uncommon in the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles. He has a reading disability, is a high-school dropout (six months before graduating from John Muir High in Pasadena), is married (wife Crystal and two sons), is an unemployed construction worker, and a jailbird. In November 1989, Rodney King robbed a Korean grocer in Monterey Park of $200 (his weapon was a two-foot-long tire iron), and was caught ten days later because the grocer was able to write down the license number of his white Hyundai as he drove away from the scene of the crime. Rodney King was arrested, pleaded guilty to robbery two, and as a first offender was sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary at Susanville, one of the lesser of the twenty-three California slammers, but still no country club.

With time off both for time served and for good time (one day off the sentence for every good day served; a good day, considering the overcrowded state of California’s prisons—84,000 inmates in a system with room for 48,0002—is essentially a day when the prisoner is not caught knifing someone), Rodney King did a year and was paroled two days after Christmas 1990. A week later he found work as a temporary laborer at Dodger Stadium. Late on the evening of Saturday March 2, 1991, Rodney King, twenty-five, barely two months out of Susanville, mellow with booze and marijuana (both parole violations), hopped into that same white Hyundai with two friends, Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms, and headed north on the Foothill Freeway, boredom their companion, destination unknown, just cruising around to see what the night might bring. It was a ride whose conclusion would send shock waves not just through the city and county of Los Angeles, but around the world as well.3

Shortly after midnight—it was now March 3—a husband-and-wife team of California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers, Melanie and Timothy Singer, saw the Hyundai traveling at a high rate of speed, upward of 100 mph. Turning on their siren and emergency lights, the Singers gave chase, first on the freeway and then on the surface streets of Pacoima. Mistakenly afraid (as he later claimed) that a speeding bust was a parole violation that could send him back to prison, Rodney King ran a series of red lights on Foothill Boulevard and did not slow down. By now two patrol cars from the Foothill Division of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) had joined the pursuit, which continued until Rodney King finally pulled to a stop at a red light in Lake View Terrace, at the corner of Foothill and Osborne, across from the Mountain Back Apartments. One of the LAPD cars radioed “Code 6,” indicating that the chase had concluded. Following “felony stop” procedures, Timothy Singer used a loudspeaker to order the occupants out of the Hyundai; passengers Allen and Helms (who as it happened was subsequently killed in an unrelated automobile accident) exited on the right side and were immediately “proned” on the ground and handcuffed.4

According to the initial “End of Shift” report filed by Sergeant Stacey Koon, the senior LAPD supervisor on the scene, Rodney King at first refused to leave the car and then when he did comply, he offered so much resistance that he had to be subdued by force, including two jolts from Koon’s Taser electric stun gun and a “torrent of power strokes, jabs, etc., to arms, torso and legs” from the two-foot-long Monadnock P24 solid aluminum batons carried by all uniformed LAPD officers on patrol, the blows in this instance administered by LAPD Officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno.

In his report, Koon downplayed the seriousness of King’s injuries, claiming they appeared to be light: “Several facial cuts due to contact with asphalt. Of a minor nature. A split inner lip. Subject appeared oblivious to pain.” Koon also said he believed that Rodney King was under the influence of PCP, which is why he was so difficult to subdue. In their “Use of Force” reports, Powell and Wind took the same line, listing Rodney King’s injuries as only “contusions and abrasions.” Rodney King, according to boxes checked in the Use of Force reports, had “attacked officers,” he had “continued some resistance,” and he had “increased resistance.” When Rodney King was finally restrained, an ambulance was called, and he was taken to the emergency room at Pacifica Hospital in the San Fernando Valley.

To the Foothill Division watch commander, Lieutenant P.J. Conmay, the Rodney King episode was a righteous bust, the highly efficient arrest of a drunk, stoned, and paroled felon after a high-speed chase. Rodney King, Conmay’s report discreetly concluded, was “ultimately subdued by several baton strikes.” No additional information was requested to complete the record, no unnecessary question asked. As written in the reports, the incident could have appeared as a scene on Dragnet or Adam 12 or T.J. Hooker or The Blue Knight or Starsky and Hutch or SWAT or any of those other television series to which the LAPD has given its imprimatur over the past forty years by lending its files, prestige, and technical support, shows the department has shrewdly used to buff its image nationally, becoming in effect America’s police department in the same way the Dallas Cowboys had become America’s team.

For the LAPD, these shows functioned as free network promotional spots, subliminally recruiting young men (and with much official reluctance young women as well) by showing what it was “To Protect and To Serve,” as the department’s motto had it, in the land of eternal sunshine, where every bust was a potential miniseries, and every cop looked like Martin Milner or Jack Webb. In the official records maintained in the computer memory banks at Parker Center, the LAPD headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, Rodney King’s arrest was a textbook bust, one more example of the “pro-active” policing the LAPD so cherished, a message over the grapevine to the minority community as well that dragging the main with a felony rap sheet on Saturday night could earn hard time and a split lip. And so the incident might have been filed and forgotten had it not been for a new Sony Handicam purchased by a tenant on the second floor of those Mountain Back Apartments at the corner of Foothill and Osborne in Lake View Terrace.


The tenant’s name was George Holliday, and like Oliver Sipple, the former US marine who wrestled Sara Jane Moore to earth when she tried to assassinate Gerald Ford in San Francisco in 1976, he is one of those people who has five minutes of fame and a place in history because he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. George Holliday is thirty-one, and he manages a plumbing business in North Hollywood. Like one of every six American families, he owns a camcorder,5 and to master it he had been filming one thing and another, from a cat licking its paw to Arnold Schwarzenegger on location in a local neighborhood bar shooting a scene for Terminator II. Drawn to his terrace that Saturday night by the noise of what appeared to be a police incident across the street, he aimed his new Sony sound camera and began shooting, the scene lit by a noisy police helicopter hovering overhead shining its spotlight down on the melee below. There were policemen and patrol cars and sirens and flashing lights, a display of force that only a street hit on a Mafia don produces in a city like New York. It is the ability to record the immediate that gives the camcorder its enormous appeal, but George Holliday did not realize what he had shot until he put the tape into his VCR and let it run. What he saw there bore scant resemblance to the accounts of the incident on the Use of Force reports filed by Sergeant Koon and Officers Powell, Briseno, and Wind.

When George Holliday began shooting, Rodney King was already on the ground, with the wires shot from Sergeant Koon’s Taser gun clearly seen coming from his body, his resistance minimal. Other than Sergeant Koon, the senior officer at the site, and Officers Powell, Briseno, and Wind, there were nineteen other uniformed LAPD officers milling around (the twenty-three LAPD officers included one black male, one black female, four Latino males, two white females, and fifteen white males), plus the two in the police chopper hovering above, and four other uniformed officers from two other law enforcement agencies, the Singers from the CHP, and two officers from the Los Angeles Unified School District who had joined the chase. On the tape, Rodney King is seen being hit fifty-six times on the neck, torso, arms, legs, elbows, knees, ankles, and joints with police batons wielded by Officers Powell, Wind, and Briseno, and kicked an additional six times (with Briseno the primary kicker) before five or six officers swarmed over him, placing him in handcuffs and cordcuffs to restrain both his arms and his legs.

Watching the baton strokes as they were administered on the tape was like watching lumberjacks trying to cut down a tree; Officer Wind expended so much energy getting in his whacks that he had to take a short nap at Pacifica Hospital, where he and another officer, a woman, had escorted Rodney King. Perhaps the tape’s most extraordinary aspect, however, was not what it showed but what it did not show: it did not show a single one of the nineteen other uniformed officers on the ground at the corner of Osborne and Foothill moving in to stop the beating, even when Rodney King, on the pavement, stunned by the Taser, was clearly no threat. (Nor did any of these nineteen otherwise non-involved officers report the full nature of the incident officially to their superiors at the end of their tours.)

Injuries “light,” according to the reports filed by Sergeant Koon and Officers Powell, Wind, and Briseno. Scrapes from the asphalt. Contusions. Abrasions. Of these there were plenty, but as the hospital emergency room staff worked on him it was discovered that Rodney King also had a broken ankle, a fractured cheekbone, eleven broken bones at the base of his skull, facial nerve damage, a severe concussion, and that the force of the kicks and baton blows had knocked fillings from his teeth; in all twenty stitches were needed to sew him up.

On Monday, George Holliday telephoned the Foothill station to say that he had witnessed an incident Saturday night involving a motorist beaten by LAPD officers. He did not volunteer that he had videotaped the incident, and the desk officer was not interested enough to ask for any details. George Holliday did ask as to the condition of the motorist, but the officer replied that “we [the LAPD] do not give out information like that.” Holliday also was not aware that another citizen had come in person to the the Foothill station that same Monday morning, trying to file a complaint about the incident Saturday night in Lake View Terrace, the complainant in this case being Rodney King’s brother Paul, who by this point was fully aware of the extent of the injuries inflicted on his brother. Paul King was kept waiting for forty minutes, and then when the desk sergeant finally spoke to him, he asked Paul King, according to King’s later sworn testimony, “whether he had ever been in trouble. Paul King responded that he was there to talk about Rodney King, not himself.”6 The sergeant replied that Rodney King was in “big trouble,” because he had quite possibly put a police officer’s life in danger. At no time did the sergeant fill out a personnel complaint form. When Paul King finally left the Foothill station that Monday, he knew, as he was to testify, “I hadn’t made a complaint.”7

There the story should have died, except that George Holliday, for whatever reason (one suspects that like most camcorder fanatics he only wanted to see his tape given airtime, and that it could just as well have been a tornado he had shot, or an airplane crash), contacted the news department of KTLA, a local TV outlet, which bought the tape (with the Schwarzenegger footage still on it) for $500. KTLA ran it that Monday night, CNN picked it up the following day, then the networks, and finally local stations around the country, all the channels playing the tape over and over again with every new revelation as if it were an MTV music video of some new band out there on the county line of outlawry.

Within a matter of weeks, according to a Newsweek poll, 77 percent of the American public had become aware of George Holliday’s Rodney King video, had counted the kicks and the baton strikes and identified on the grainy, badly lit tape which officers were which, here was the indefatigable Wind, over there the stomper Briseno. This is a public, surveys have suggested, that believes crime to be the number-one domestic political issue, want strong law enforcement, and would not and often did not make much of a fuss about police brutality as long as it was kept out of sight, out of mind. But with the King tape on the tube every night, and with all the usual pundits at their most orotund discussing its implications on Nightline and on This Week With David Brinkley and Face the Nation and Meet the Press, and with all the usual shrinks showing up on all the usual chat shows to expound on the stress of urban police work and on the insularity of the group and why policemen felt like social outcasts, there was no way for Rodney King’s beating to be kept out of sight, out of mind.

In a Los Angeles Times poll taken three days after the King tape was first aired, over 60 percent of the respondents within the city—Anglo, Latino, and black—thought that LAPD police brutality was “common”; in a second poll two weeks later, better than two thirds—68 percent—now thought LAPD, police brutality was either “fairly common” or “very common.”8 What was of special interest to the downtown Los Angeles business establishment, and of concern to the LAPD, was that the numbers did not just reflect the endemic complaints of the city’s Latino and black populations; 59 percent of the Anglo community, always the department’s major constituency and source of support, now agreed that such complaints were legitimate.

For the LAPD, there was an ironic, even devastating, symmetry about the King tape. Just as the department had used network television and fictitious telecops from Joe Friday to Bumper Morgan to define and polish its myth and its image, now that myth and image were under siege from the very medium the department had once so effectively co-opted; Dragnet had given way to the kind of real-life rogue cops more often seen on the sleazy recreations of America’s Most Wanted and Hard Copy. Nothing showed the LAPD in a favorable light. Department logs indicated that at least twelve of the officers at Foothill and Osborne had showed up after a Code 4 signal had notified all units that additional assistance was no longer needed, and that all units not at the scene “shall return to their assigned patrol area”; five officers at the Foothill station, in fact, who were just going off duty, had piled into two patrol cars after the Code 4, as one later told investigators, “to see what was happening.9

Few of the details on the public record flattered the LAPD. Powell, it turned out, had broken a suspect’s elbow with his baton in 1989 (the case against the suspect was later dismissed), and in 1987 Briseno had been suspended for sixty-six days without pay after fellow officers testified at a department hearing that he hit a handcuffed suspect with his baton and later kicked him; when the suspect tried to get Briseno’s badge number, Briseno waved his baton inches from his face and said, “I’ll give you my badge number up your nose, buddy.” For his part, Sergeant Koon, who was commended for coolness under fire in a 1989 shootout, had once threatened to shoot a neighbor’s dog if the animal ever wandered into his yard again.10 With regard to the Rodney King case, blood and urine tests taken at Pacifica Hospital showed that, contrary to Koon’s allegations, King had not been under the influence of PCP at the time of his arrest, although he had “traces” of marijuana in his system and was probably legally drunk. 11

Then three days after the attack, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office announced it would not file charges against King because the officers on the scene had failed to prove he had resisted arrest. Not only that, said prosecutors, but the King tape was already influencing local juries not to believe the testimony of cops in cases then being tried. Although prosecutors objected to the introduction of the King incident into cross-examination and closing arguments, “if we object too much,” as one said, “it looks like we have something to hide.”12

Nothing put the LAPD on the defensive as much, however, as the release of computer messages between patrol cars on the night of the King assault. It is through these Mobile Digital Terminals (called MDTs and located on the dashboards of most police cruisers) that units communicate both with each other and with their division headquarters. The transcriptions on the night of March 3 give a different picture of the King episode than appeared in the various reports filed by officers involved. A sampling:

12:47 AM: From emergency board operator to all units: “CHP advises their officers are in pursuit of a vehicle failing to yield southbound Paxton-Foothill…Vehicle is white Hyundai…”

12:56 AM: From Sgt. Stacey Koon to watch commander’s office: “U just had big time use of force…tased and beat the suspect of CHP pursuit, Big Time.”

12:57 AM: From watch commander’s office to Koon: “Oh, well…I’m sure the lizard didn’t deserve it…ha, ha…”

1:12 AM: From Officers Powell and Wind in unit 16A23 to foot patrol officers: “Ooops.”

1:13 AM: From foot patrol to Powell and Wind: “Ooops what?”

1:13 AM: From Powell and Wind to the foot patrol: “I haven’t beaten anybody this bad in a long time.”

1:15 AM: Foot patrol to Powell and Wind: “Oh not again. Why for you do that? I thought you agreed to chill out for awhile. What he do?”

1:16 AM: Powell and Wind to the foot patrol: “I think he was dusted…many broken bones later…”13

Big time use of force. Broken bones. This was not the language that had shown up on the official reports. It was the continual appearance of “Ha, ha” on the transcripts, however, and what appeared to be ethnic slurs (Powell and Wind had said a previous call earlier that same evening “was right out of Gorillas in the Mist,” to which their respondents had answered, “Ha ha ha ha…let me guess…who be the parties”) that got the most attention. The MDT messages and the fact that Rodney King was black only fueled the conviction in the black and Hispanic communities that the LAPD was institutionally racist.

In the eye of this firestorm was Chief Daryl F. Gates, a cop for forty-two years, since 1978 not just chief but absolute monarch of the department, and some would even argue of the city of Los Angeles itself. The source of Gates’s extraordinary power is the Los Angeles City Charter, enacted in 1925 in reaction to a municipal government at that time so corrupt that it could be rented practically by the hour. What the drafters of the charter dreamily envisioned was a “citizens’ government” as opposed to a “politicians’ government,” with those good citizens protecting the public against the abuses of the kind of venal politicos (which was to say Irish, Italian, and Jewish) who ran the big cities of the East. But as with most reform, the reformers failed to anticipate the problem inherent in this perfect palm tree Utopia, the fact that their plan could only work if all parties shared the same vision of the city. Theoretically the charter gives authority to city commissions whose commissioners are appointed (and who can be fired) by the mayor; in practice the charter created so many checks and balances that no one is actually in charge of the city government, and there is no built-in system of accountability.

Putative responsibility for the police department rested with the Police Commission. In 1937, however, the commission was rendered virtually toothless when Los Angeles voters, in a further effort to make the department free of grubby political pressures, gave the chief of police civil service protection, and his job was declared “a substantial property right” from which he cannot be suspended or removed except

for good and sufficient cause shown upon a finding of “guilty” of the specific charge or charges assigned as cause or causes therefor after a full, fair and impartial hearing before the [Board of Civil Service Commissioners].14

Only one chief, Clemence B. Horrall, has ever been removed under the “good and sufficient cause” provision, and he when it was discovered, during a citywide scandal in 1949, that the department was providing protection for a famous upmarket LA madam named Brenda Allen, whose brothels were frequented by a considerable portion of the local gentry in the worlds of film, finance, and government (and who after going straight ended her days as a rather soignée sales clerk in an expensive dress shop in Beverly Hills). Failing such infamy on the part of a chief, the practical effect of the clause was to give him what amounted to lifetime tenure, free of accountability either to City Hall or to the Police Commission, and more importantly what amounts to the power and infallibility of a caudillo, far more power even than the largely figurehead mayor, who at least has to face the voters every four years. The caudillo’s role was one to which Daryl Gates was particularly well-suited, and the office of chief offered resources even a caudillo might envy. Not least was the implied threat that he might cause an investigation into the private embarrassments of those officials who might try to thwart his stewardship, the instrument available in such an instance being the department’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division, or the PDID.

For nearly sixty years, the PDID had functioned as the department’s Red Squad, investigating what it regarded as politically questionable (usually left-wing) activity. Then in 1977, when Gates was still an assistant chief, the Police Commission decided that the PDID had outlived its usefulness and ordered the department to destroy more than 50,000 files. Six years later, the commission discovered that 150 cartons of PDID files were still being kept in a garage and in the mobile home of a plainclothes sergeant still on active duty, including dossiers on Mayor Tom Bradley, at least two city council members, police commissioners, and the president of the City Planning Commission. There were also files on the National Organization for Women, Unitarian Universalists, and other groups considered subversive by the far right, and these files were illicitly passed to interested ultraconservative activists to use as they saw fit.

The plainclothes officer, a rightwing zealot named Jay Paul,15 took the fall for the department, but a Police Commission investigation laid the blame “on top sworn management” of the department, “including past and present assistant chiefs and chiefs of police,” a description that was a snug fit on Daryl Gates. On behalf of those who had been under PDID surveillance, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an invasion of privacy suit, and won a $1.8 million judgment against the city. As a result, the commission abolished the PDID and once again ordered its files destroyed, but replaced it with a new Anti-Terrorist Division, which, according to the chief’s critics, did the same thing the PDID did, only under a different name. 16

Gates is sixty-five, vain about his looks, his hair styled to swirl over thin spots on a high forehead, and he is usually described as “well-dressed,” which means that his clothes are always “color coordinated.” He is also an amazingly contentious officer with a quick, sharp tongue he has a tendency to trip over, particularly when discussing minorities or women. In 1978, on the job for less than a month, he told an Hispanic audience that the reason Latinos in the department were not promoted faster was that they were “lazy”; he later amended his remarks by saying he was only trying to encourage Latinos to work harder so they might attain supervisory ranks. Two years later he was at it again, calling a local TV anchorwoman “an Aryan broad” (he said he was only trying to be funny), and then in a 1982 interview he said he had a hunch that the reason so many blacks died from the LAPD’s use of the restraining carotid chokehold was that their “veins and arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people.”

Gates has never lived down the “normal people” remark, try as he still does to explain it away, and blacks in Los Angeles invariably bring it up as a symbol of the racist attitudes they believe the chief countenances in his department. “One stupid word,” he complained bitterly to Bella Stumbo of the Los Angeles Times that summer. He had only meant, he told Stumbo, that blacks do suffer from sickle cell anemia and they do suffer disproportionately from high blood pressure, so perhaps they might be at greater risk when subjected to the carotid chokehold which cuts off blood flow to the brain. Gates blamed the press and black leaders for not letting the issue go. “There’s obvious persecution in this,” he said, as always seeing himself surrounded by enemies. “They’re all so eager to discredit me.” Not quite so concerned as their chief, white cops took to calling their black-and-white patrol cars “black and normal.”17

Gates’s entire thirteen-year tenure has likewise been marked by continual battles with LA’s seventy-three-year-old five-term black mayor (and former LAPD lieutenant) Tom Bradley, whom he detests as much as Bradley detests him (“our great mayor” is the carefully enunciated way Gates uses to dismiss Bradley, and on the record he has even called him “a lousy mayor”);18 with the Police Commission, toward which he had stopped trying to conceal his contempt, especially when the commission tried to be anything but a rubber stamp; with the City Council, which provides the department’s funding; with Hispanics, blacks, and those whites who would dare criticize him or his department. Gates’s immediate reaction to the King tape (he was out of town when the incident happened) was that it made him “physically ill,” but he called the beating “an aberration,” and scoffed at the idea that it was indicative of any inherent departmental pattern of brutality or racism. With past incidents, however, there had been no film at eleven.


Mayor Tom Bradley waited better than two weeks to fire his first salvo. “The people of this city have been slapped in the face by the attitude and bigotry of these officers,” Bradley said. “It is no longer possible for any objective person to regard the King beating as an ‘aberration.”‘ (It should be noted that Bradley’s remarks came not from City Hall, but, in a mark of his peripatetic eighteen years in office, from Hawaii, where he had gone to promote the city’s bid for the 1993 Super Bowl.)19 The Los Angeles Times called for Gates to resign, as predictably did civil rights activists and black and Hispanic community leaders, and after a month of waffling so too did Tom Bradley.20

Wherever Gates went he was jeered (“Hey, hey, ho, ho, Daryl Gates has got to go”), but he was not buying any of the calls for his resignation, adopting from the start what might be described as the Nixonian indispensable man theory. “I need to stay,” he told the editors of the Los Angeles Times, because his resignation would cause chaos in the LAPD, morale to plummet, and a mass exodus of the department’s best and brightest. “You know, in so many situations, I could be a good guy,” he continued, his voice (as the Times reported) full of sarcasm, “[but] my police officers would say, ‘Oh, man, the chief is selling us out.’ I could be a great guy [more sarcasm]. I could be very popular. But that’s not the way you develop confidence and respect from your personnel.”21

The same hostility and self-pity were in evidence when Gates offered to issue an apology to Rodney King: “In spite of the fact that [King] is on parole and a convicted robber, I’d be glad to apologize.” Even this grudging and offensive concession, implying as it did that a few broken bones might perhaps be in order if the victim’s rap sheet was ugly enough, was too much for him to sustain. “We are showing a great deal of sympathy for this guy,” he told his Playboy interviewer, Diane K. Shah. “And you know, may be we ought to. He certainly didn’t deserve what occurred. But on the other hand, I don’t think he deserves this picture of a model citizen that is being painted. ‘Cute little kids and I’m going to get a job and all I want to do is set my life straight.”‘22

Self-serving though this argument was, it did win Gates support from the show-them-who’s-boss fringe of the far right. “Did they hit him too many times?” wrote libertarian Llewellyn Rockwell. “Sure, but that’s not the issue: it’s safe streets versus urban terror…. It’s not a pleasant sight, of course; neither is cancer surgery.”23 Patrick Buchanan (who once took on two cops himself in a dispute over a traffic infraction, and was only subdued when they brought out their nightsticks) was his usual belligerent self: “If the police beat [King] brutally, many will say that even though the cops went too far, they are our troops. And Americans in their hearts know that had these cops been killed in that wild chase, or shot to death when King got out of the car, neither the ACLU nor national TV would have hung around for the funeral.”24

But to other conservatives, Buchanan’s posturing was what George Will called “primitivism.” Gates’s “department is demonstrably guilty of an intolerable level of abuse, much of it resulting from racism,” Will wrote. “When three white men club and stomp a black while a dozen other white men watch, well, people will talk.”25 William F. Buckley, Jr., was equally perplexed by what he had seen on the King tape. “What alters the character of the episode is of course the presence of as many as seventeen other police officers who simply stood by as though they were official witnesses at an execution,” Buckley wrote. “One has to conclude that there is an insensibility to the Los Angeles police that is difficult to understand and impossible to defend.”26

Two weeks after the assault on Rodney King, the four officers involved were indicted by the Los Angeles County grand jury. In the aftermath of the indictment, Gates replaced the captain in charge of patrol at the Foothill Division (who had been on the job for only six weeks) with a black captain, then a few weeks later fired Officer Wind, who was only a probationer with less than a year’s active service, and suspended Koon, Powell, and Briseno without pay.27 Jesse Jackson showed up in town and before a boisterous rally in front of Parker Center threatened a boycott of the 1993 Super Bowl and urged the ouster of both Gates and “Gateism.” At a luncheon of a group called Citizens in Support of the Chief of Police, who should appear on the dais with Gates, in front of a banner saying “STAY!” but George Holliday, who probably would have better served the chief had he on March 3 been satisfied just to tape his cat. In this cloud-cuckoo-land atmosphere, Sergeant Koon, after his suspension, wrote an Op-Ed piece for the Los Angeles Times demanding that Gates resign. “Chief Gates has metamorphosed himself from an individual into the organization,” Koon (or his polysyllabic ghostwriter) wrote. “Gates’s actions indicate that he has abused his oath of office and prostituted the foundations upon which the LAPD has built its reputation. Therefore, it is time for Chief Gates to step down.”28

The mechanisms for forcing Gates to quit were creaky. Early in April, the Police Commission, acting on a ruling from the city attorney that it had authority to do so, suddenly furloughed Gates for sixty days, with pay, pending the outcome of its own investigation into the department. Support came to Gates even from police officers who had never before been that enthusiastic about their chief. Some began wearing black strips over their badges, the department’s traditional sign of mourning after an officer has been killed in the line of duty, and one was quoted as saying, “Moscow—L.A., that’s where I live. I don’t live in America. It’s a public execution.”29

The next day the City Council, although it did not have any actual right to overturn the commission’s ruling, overwhelmingly ordered Gates’s reinstatement by a vote of ten to three through a complicated legal maneuver that allows the council to settle lawsuits against the city, in this case one threatened by Gates, whose quid pro quo for withdrawing his suit was the reinstatement vote. The machinations were worthy of a penny dreadful. Six council members were up for re-election, all endorsed by the Police Protective League, which quietly passed the word that a vote against Gates would be tantamount to withdrawal of its endorsement.

Through the years Gates had always enjoyed more rapport with the generally liberal council than he had with the Police Commission, in part, it was whispered at City Hall, because he allegedly maintained secret files on the sexual indiscretions and/or preferences of several council members, and on the use of controlled substances by at least one other, a rumor given a certain credence by the 1983 PDID scandal. That this information was practically public knowledge did not deter the conspiracy theorists; in one council district, most of the voters were perfectly aware that their councilman was gay. While Gates always denied that he kept such files, he usually did so with a smile and a wink. On the night he was suspended by the Police Commission, the night before the City Council vote, Gates made what seemed a veiled threat on Nightline. “If I really laid it on the line,” Gates told Ted Koppel, “and it may come down to exactly that, when I do, watch out.”30

Less than a month after Rodney King decided to drive too fast, the politics of Los Angeles had become fratricidal, with all sides firing at each other with their rhetorical cannons. Truces were arranged—between Bradley and Gates, Gates and the Police Commission, the City Council and Bradley—and just as regularly broken; city government was in total gridlock. The only solution seemed to be the formation of an official nonpartisan commission to investigate the situation. Commissions formed in the wake of civil distress and comprised of public-spirited citizens are a particularly American art form, the ultimate example of the genre being the Warren Commission. The charter of the commission is twofold, to show official concern and to soothe the public. Witnesses are heard. There are Public Meetings. Executive Sessions. Graphs and Charts. Cases and Examples. Root Causes. Short Term Remedies. Long Term Solutions. In Summary. In summary nobody reads the final report, or if they do read it, they do not believe it or let it gather dust on a shelf, but by that time perhaps things have died down, and life can return to normal.

Gates was the first to form a commission, chaired by retired California Supreme Court Justice John Arguelles, and charged with investigating “all conditions that may have contributed to the development of attitudes and patterns of behavior that could have led to this gross misconduct.”31 Four days later, Tom Bradley also announced a commission, with more or less the same charter (“a reasoned, objective, thorough and constructive examination of the structure and operation of our police department”),32 and as chairman he picked Warren Christopher, sixty-five, a deputy attorney general under Lyndon Johnson, and then as deputy secretary of state the man who in the waning days of the Carter administration finally negotiated the release of the American hostages in Iran.

Christopher was no stranger to name commissions, having been a senior staff member of the McCone Commission which investigated the Watts riots of 1965, and a major contributor in the shaping of its final report. Now managing partner of the powerful Los Angeles law firm O’Melveny and Myers, Christopher is, among both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, perhaps the most respected figure in the city’s business establishment, unassailable and even feared, in the sense that if you want something downtown, his help is indispensable. He is also a player, and his first move was to invite Arguelles to merge the two commissions, with Christopher the chairman and Arguelles the vice chairman.

Arguelles was diplomatically outmaneuvered; he could not say no without appearing to head a tame pro-Gates commission. Gracefully he agreed to Christopher’s proposition, the two commissions were merged into one ten-man unit (with Arguelles and two other members of the group handpicked by Gates seen as supporters of the chief), and when staff (fifty lawyers, sixty accountants, with junior staffers including three former clerks to Supreme Court justices and others drawn heavily from the law reviews of the better law schools) was finally assembled, what was now called the Christopher Commission went to work. Except for occasional bureaucratic sniper fire between the principals, the city calmed down to await a final report that City Hall insiders were already saying would have a little of this, a little of that, a slap on the wrist here, a kiss on the cheek there.


Los Angeles was a different city from the one where Warren Christopher grew up and went to college (University of Southern California, magna cum laude, 1945). In 1926, the city’s population of 1.3 million was 90 percent white of Western European stock; with the exception of a strong Jewish community of between fifty and a hundred thousand people, there were no significant pockets of Eastern or Southern Europeans. The other 10 percent of the city was comprised of 45,000 Hispanics, 33,000 blacks, and 30,000 Asians. As it was so often called in those days, LA was truly the west coast of Iowa (or perhaps North Dakota, where Christopher in fact was born, his family moving to Los Angeles when he was a small boy).33

That Los Angeles was run not so much by its elected officials, as by what came to be known as The Committee of Twenty-five, in effect a shadow government of unelected businessmen (Harrison Otis of the Los Angeles Times, and later his son-in-law, Harry Chandler; Asa Call and John McCone and James Lin Beebe were later names) convinced that they alone knew what was best for the city, and had the influence to get it. Get it they did, by whatever devious and unscrupulous means they could, means that with the burnish of time have come to be known, not without some merit, as vision—a harbor in San Pedro (by annexing a corridor of land to the ocean and calling the corridor Los Angeles), water from the Owens Valley (an out-and-out swindle) without which the city could not grow,34 a transportation system, even the City Charter which was later to so paralyze Los Angeles. This was white power at its most powerful.35

Growth was the business of Los Angeles, from the mountains to the desert, from the desert to the sea, as the jingle of a local radio station repeats over and over every day. It was the first metropolis on wheels, defined by the automobile and a tank of gas, expanding in every direction, its distances making it unavailable to the walker in the city and obliterating the idea of a central community. The car culture makes Los Angeles the nation’s largest radio market, with sixty-eight stations, all formats, the car radio filling in the spaces between home and work, the supermarket and the dry cleaner.

The Los Angeles seen in movies and on television, the Los Angeles imprinted on the consciousness of the rest of the country, seemed to be a city that radiated out from the Beverly Hills Hotel, white and laid-back, El Lay. The reality was someplace else. As its population exploded—to 3.4 million people today in the city itself, 8.9 million in the metropolitan area of city and county—LA became less Anglo, less amenable to the grip of twenty-five white power brokers whose clubs would not admit people unlike themselves. Over eighty languages are currently spoken in the city’s schools, and 39 percent of these students come from homes where English is not the primary language. In 1990, the most common name given to a male child was José, and at UCLA the largest single racial group is Asian (although a rabbi friend who is a chaplain at USC reports that fraternity boys there still refer to their westside rival as Jew Cee El Lay).36 Today Los Angeles has the largest Japanese, Iranian, Thai, and Filipino communities in the country; there are 50,000 Armenians living in Hollywood, of the 300,000 in southern California. At the legal local option gambling clubs in the independent enclaves of southeastern LA, the most popular games of chance are pan and pai gow; menus and gaming instructions at these clubs are printed in, among other languages, Korean, Tagalog, Cambodian, Cantonese, and Vietnamese.

According to the 1990 preliminary census, 40 percent of the city was Hispanic, 37 percent Anglo, 13 percent black, 10 percent “Asian/Pacific Islanders and others.”37 And in the Anglo neighborhoods, the ambient noise, the Musak of Los Angeles, is the sound of spoken Spanish. Only a few of the lyrics are familiar; words and the occasional complete sentence spoken to gardeners and domestics. La niña, la marqueta, la aspiradora (the vacuum cleaner), más agua aquí, and the delicate and usually negotiable, “¿Tiene usted papeles?” meaning, “Do you have papers?”

The city today is like the Balkans, rich with blood feuds that outsiders can scarcely understand. In the bleaker black and Hispanic sections, there are not so much neighborhoods as turf, each patch inviolate, divided between gangs ready to defend with heavy firepower any incursion into their turf, and to retaliate with drive-by commando strikes of their own. A gang’s turf is usually only one or two blocks square; walking to a 7-Eleven or a minimart a block away, but in another gang’s territory, is an invitation to manslaughter. Even going to school can be an adventure, a trek through a half dozen hostile city-states controlled by competing gangs with short fuses, gangs with names like the Locos, the Dukes, the Crips, the Bloods, Al Capone, the Cuatro Flats, The Mob Crew (TMC for short).

Today it is conservatively estimated that there are 50,000 gang members throughout the city, although some counters claim as many as 70,000, with weapons to match. A year ago, I wrote and narrated a PBS documentary about Los Angeles, and in the Hispanic Boyle Heights section, at a demilitarized zone called the Delores Mission run by a Catholic priest who in the last five years has officiated at the funerals of seventeen youths killed in gang shootings, a young woman auxiliary member of TMC tried to explain the concept of turf:

Somebody never been down here, and they ain’t from nowhere, then they don’t have to worry about it, they don’t get no sweat. But if it’s somebody from somewhere that we don’t get along with, then they have to worry about it.

Somebody from somewhere with what they call “‘tude,” or attitude. “Worrying about it” was defined by the girl’s compañero, a TMC member in his midteens whose wispy mustache only succeeded in making him look younger than he was. “They think we just walk around killing people, like for fun,” he said casually, a smile pasted to his aquiline face. “When we kill someone, it’s for a reason, we don’t do it just for fun.”

I hoped that his was just the bravado of the projects, a display of macho for the effete white reporter who ain’t from nowhere and who had the effrontery to think he could take the brown pulse, but the constantly escalating body count of gang-related shootings and killings was street rhetoric put into practice. Nor was the carnage confined to the ghetto and the barrio. Between the years 1960 to 1989, the rate of violent crime throughout the country more than trebled (from 200 incidents per 100,000 residents to 700), but in Los Angeles the crime rate per person was more than twice the national average, or 1,600 per 100,000 people, second only to New York, with 2,000. The statistics are staggering. “According to the Police Foundation, in 1986 Los Angeles police were the busiest among the officers in the six largest cities in the United States.”

For each sworn officer that year, Los Angeles had the highest number of recorded violent crimes (9.2 compared with 5.2 in New York, the second highest), and the highest number of recorded property crimes (35.2 compared with 32.1 in Houston). LAPD officers had the highest average number of violent crime arrests (3.1 per officer compared with 1.9 in Detroit, the second highest), and the highest average number of property crime arrests (4.4 per officer compared with 3.8 in both Houston and Chicago).38

In what was becoming, in fact what had become, a city of color, the LAPD remained overwhelmingly—67.8 percent—white. As of February 1991, there were 1,154 blacks in the department, or 13.4 percent of its total complement; another 21 percent of the department was Hispanic. Eighty-two percent of the blacks, however, were concentrated in entry-level patrol jobs, as were 80 percent of the Latinos, compared to 60 percent of the white officers. Only 8 percent of the LAPD’s supervisory personnel, that is, sergeant or above, were black; for Hispanics it was 10 percent. It was in the subtext of these statistics that the Rodney King affair could be seen as a disaster waiting to happen.

This is the first of two articles.

  1. 1

    To Bella Stumbo, Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1982. 

  2. 2

    Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (Verso, 1990), p. 228. 

  3. 3

    I am indebted here as I am throughout this piece to the editors, reporters, and columnists of the Los Angeles Times, whose coverage of the King case provides an extraordinary record of the events of March 3, 1991, and their aftermath. 

  4. 4

    Report of the Independent Commission on The Los Angeles Police Department (Los Angeles: 1991), pp. 4–6. A summary of the report is available by writing to the Independent Commission, Suite 1919, 400 South Hope Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071-2899. 

  5. 5

    Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1991 

  6. 6

    Report of the Independent Commission, p. 10. 

  7. 7

    Report of the Independent Commission, p. 10. 

  8. 8

    Report of the Independent Commission, p. 16. 

  9. 9

    Report of the Independent Commission, p. 5. 

  10. 10

    Los Angeles Times, March 16 and April 20, 1991. 

  11. 11

    Report of the Independent Commission, p. 8. King’s blood and urine samples were taken five hours after his arrest, when his blood alcohol levels were just below the legal definition of intoxication. Had the tests been taken sooner, the assumption was that his levels would have been over the legal limit. 

  12. 12

    Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1991. 

  13. 13

    Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1991, and Selected Messages from the Mobile Digital Terminal System, Report of the Independent Commission, pp. 82–83. 

  14. 14

    Report of the Independent Commission, pp. 186, 200. 

  15. 15

    Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1984. 

  16. 16

    Report of the Independent Commission, p. 195. 

  17. 17

    Los Angeles Times, August 15, 1982 

  18. 18

    Los Angeles Times, August 15 and 16, 1982. 

  19. 19

    Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1991. 

  20. 20

    Los Angeles Times, April 3, 1991. 

  21. 21

    Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1991. 

  22. 22

    Playboy, August 1991. Ms. Shah will also ghostwrite Gates’s autobiography, for which he has signed a contract of $300,000. 

  23. 23

    Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1991. 

  24. 24

    Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1991. 

  25. 25

    Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1991. 

  26. 26

    Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1991. 

  27. 27

    Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1991, and May 5, 1991. 

  28. 28

    Los Angeles Times, May 12, 1991. 

  29. 29

    Los Angeles Times, April 5, 1991. 

  30. 30

    Los Angeles Times, May 23, 1991, and The New Republic, June 10, 1991. 

  31. 31

    Report of the Independent Commission, Appendix I. 

  32. 32

    Report of the Independent Commission, Appendix I. 

  33. 33

    Kevin Starr, Material Dreams: California Through the 1920s (Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 120. 

  34. 34

    See my “Chinatowns,” The New York Review, October 21, 1982. 

  35. 35

    Davis, City of Quartz, p. 126. Mr. Davis’s radical view of Los Angeles is bracingly revisionist and corrective. His book is richly documented, and like Carey McWilliams’s Southern California: An Island on the Land (Peregrine Smith, 1946, 1973) and Kevin Starr’s Material Dreams is essential to any understanding of Los Angeles and southern California. 

  36. 36

    The Village Voice, April 16, 1991. 

  37. 37

    Report of the Independent Commission, pp. 21–23. 

  38. 38

    Report of the Independent Commission, pp. 23–24.