Law and Disorder in LA: Part Two

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


When the savage beating of Rodney King by members of the Los Angeles Police Department was shown on nationwide TV last March (the incident having been captured on tape by George Holliday, an amateur camera buff), the LAPD and its chief, Daryl Gates, were subjected, for the first time, to a thorough, critical, and impartial investigation. It was carried out by a commission headed by Los Angeles lawyer Warren Christopher, who as deputy secretary of state during the last days of the Carter administration had negotiated the release of the Iran hostages. The picture of the LAPD that emerged from the Christopher Commission’s investigation was at sharp variance with the image, long cultivated by the department and its chiefs, of a highly professional, corruption-free force in confident control of crime and the city it policed.

The LAPD is a surprisingly small force for a city its size, with only 8,450 officers. Of the six largest departments in the country, it has the fewest cops per resident (2: 1,000) and the second fewest per square mile (15: 1), this in an urban sprawl 450 miles square.1 For all the talk about the difficulty of policing Los Angeles, however, one can argue that it is easier to police a horizontal city like LA than a vertical city with its apartment houses and high-rise population density; the LAPD can use helicopters and its K-9 dog teams in a way departments cannot in New York or Chicago. (It should be noted that statistical analysis shows “a high correlation” between the frequency of K-9 use and areas of significant nonwhite population, another implicit example, critics say, of LAPD racism.)2

Partly because the city is so spread out, the department functions more like a panzer division than a normal police force, a high-tech army on wheels trained to respond to incidents in seven minutes or less.3 It has its own air force of French Aérospatiale choppers equipped with infrared scopes, and it was a pioneer in SWAT team techniques, a Daryl Gates innovation. In 1980 Gates even offered to send an LAPD SWAT team to Iran to free the hostages, a suggestion turned down by the Carter administration, which politely told him to mind his own business; Gates maintained he had only been joking.

The militarization of the LAPD began in 1949 when, in the wake of the Brenda Allen scandal (in which members of the department were found to be providing protection for a well-known Los Angeles brothel keeper), William Parker was named chief. Until Parker, the department was riddled with corruption; shakedowns were endemic. Parker was a puritan with inflexibly conservative political views. His first priority as chief was to rid the department of graft, and rid it he did, cauterizing the LAPD so effectively that whatever its other faults, it is now probably the least corrupt of the country’s larger police forces. What Parker wanted was a mobile, aggressive, and efficient department, “a thin blue line,” as he called it, modeled on the US Marine Corps.

His department would be “pro-active,” anticipating crime rather than reacting to crimes already committed. It depended on criminal profiles—what sort of people belonged where, and what sort did not. Recently the home of a friend of mine in Los Angeles was burgled. The burglar, whom he came upon unawares and last saw climbing over a fence, was a male Hispanic. My friend’s house is in the Wilshire district. The detective who dusted the house for prints, a black, said he would have done the following had he been on uniform patrol and seen a Hispanic walking around that neighborhood: I would have moved him a couple of blocks, the detective said, and then I would have driven around some more, and if he was still hanging out, I would have moved him a couple more blocks, and I would have kept this up until he was “south of Olympic, where he belonged.” This is pro-active policing, LAPD style.

The Committee of Twenty-five—the shadow government of unelected businessmen that ran Los Angeles at that time—loved Bill Parker. He was to the Los Angeles oligarchy what the army in El Salvador is to its oligarchs, the enforcer of their rigid social views. He did not believe in race-mixing, he produced crime statistics to show that “socialistic” public housing would only lead to “jungle life” in the projects, and he was quick to spot a Communist. In 1960, testifying before the US Commission on Civil Rights, Parker said that “the established community [i.e., white] thinks cops are not hard enough on black vice” and explained that the crime rate in the barrio was high because the people who lived there were just a step removed from “the wild tribes of Mexico.” To Parker, drugs were a Red plot. “The Communists-furthered the heroin and marijuana trade,” he charged in the press, “because drug use sped the moral degeneration of America.”4

The Watts riots in 1965 brought Parker’s closet racism out into the open. More than thirty blacks were killed by the LAPD and the National Guard, each one a “justifiable homicide.” To Parker, the riots were the work of a small minority, “riffraff,” he called them, “monkeys in a zoo,” a finding with which the McCone Commission, without the racist rhetoric, concurred; a subsequent study by Robert Fogelson, using the commission’s own data, indicated that 75,000 blacks actually took part in the uprising, a rather more substantial number of simian riffraff than Parker had indicated.5 But for Parker the apocalypse was at hand. “It is estimated that by 1970, 45 percent of the metropolitan area of Los Angeles will be Negro,” he told a television audience in the aftermath of the riots. “If you want any protection for your home and family…you’re going to have to get in and support a strong police department. If you don’t, come 1970, God help you.”6

A year later, Parker was dead, of a heart attack; Parker Center, the department’s downtown headquarters and mission control, is named after him. The day he died, I was in Delano, California, reporting on Cesar Chavez during the strike of his farmworkers’ union against the grape growers of the San Joaquin Valley. Chavez was greatly aided that summer by young unpaid Anglo volunteers, mainly anti-war college students, many of whom had worked earlier in black voter registration drives in the South. The death of William Parker was not a cause of great mourning among them. “A racist pig” was the general consensus, joined in by all but one young man, who had already been pummeled and arrested several times by Kern County sheriffs, and sprayed with insecticides by growers who were furious that these pampered draft-dodging Trotskyites (why Trotskyites I was never able to understand) would make common cause with Mexican farm laborers. “He was a friend of my father’s,” the young man finally whispered to me. “I always thought he was a nice man.”

Daryl Gates joined the LAPD in 1949, the year Parker was named chief, and he became Parker’s last and most ardent disciple. He was born in 1926, a time when Los Angeles was 90 percent white, in blue-collar Glendale, the son of an alcoholic plumber who worked only occasionally, and a devout Mormon mother who supported her three sons by working a six-day, seventy-two-hour week as a dress cutter in the garment district downtown. Hard times made a hard man. During the Depression, Gates remembers standing in bread lines with his father, hoping to get a few potatoes and a head of cabbage. “We were poor, really poor,” he recalled in his interview with Bella Stumbo of the Los Angeles Times, “so poor that at Christmas we were the only family on the block to get a Christmas basket from my school.” His older brother was an epileptic who died in a surfing accident, and his younger brother (by eleven years), Steve, is a captain in the LAPD, whose own climb up the chain of command came to an abrupt halt when the woman with whom he was having an affair turned out to own a whorehouse in the San Fernando Valley.7

After two years in the Pacific as a Navy seaman during World War II, and a postwar marriage before he was twenty-one, Gates needed a job when his wife got pregnant, and the $290 a month offered by the LAPD would both support his family and let him finish the education he had started at USC. His ambition, sidetracked he thought just for the moment, was to become a “millionaire lawyer.” “Certainly I never intended to be a dumb cop all my life,” he told Bella Stumbo with characteristic mockery. “I thought that was way, way beneath me.” But a year after graduation from the Police Academy, Gates, via the intervention of an instructor whose attention he had caught at the Academy, was assigned to the chief’s office and became William Parker’s chauffeur and bodyguard.

Gates took to Parker, but no less than the chief took to Gates. Parker became Gates’s rabbi in the department, thinking out loud to his young driver as they drove around the city. “Here I was, just a plain old police officer, but he didn’t close me off from anything,” Gates said. “He’d discuss decisions as we’d drive, he philosophized a lot…. He told me why he was doing certain things. It was an incredible golden opportunity, and I got a rare insight into the department from the top down.”8 Gates was twenty-four.

When his eighteen-month tour as Parker’s driver was over, Gates worked the juvenile beat, then vice, where he staked out men’s rooms and public urinals frequented by homosexuals. Once he was stabbed in the scalp, not seriously, while arresting a prostitute. In all he wore “the bag,” as cops working the streets call their blue uniforms, for six years. Then came a series of administrative jobs arranged, it was said, by Parker, who after the knife incident with the prostitute wanted his protégé back on the fast track. Gates was a loner, without any close friends in the department. “I could relate to various things that were happening…that other officers couldn’t relate to,” he told Stumbo. “I understood the whole structure of the department, and the average officer just did not understand that.” It was not an attitude that endeared him to the average cops, who called him a “squint,” or someone who spent all his spare time cramming for every departmental promotion test. He took each exam as soon as he had time in grade, and he always finished first. During the Watts riots, Gates, by then a captain, took over as a street commander in South Central, and if his reputation was not enhanced by the experience, neither did it suffer.

After Parker died, Gates, then thirty-nine, tried for the top job, only to lose out to Tom Reddin. His marriage broke up—he and his wife had three children—and he married again, a United Airlines flight attendant. When Reddin quit after only two years in office to become perhaps the world’s most wooden TV anchor (a short-lived career), Gates applied again for the post, losing this time to Ed Davis. It is well to remember that Parker, Reddin, Davis, and Gates all came up through the ranks of the LAPD, and not from other departments. Because of the City Charter and various amendments to it, being appointed chief in Los Angeles has been practically a matter of apostolic succession, virtually closed to applicants from other departments around the country, making the upper echelon of the LAPD what amounts to a subtropical Junker corps.

In order even to be considered, outsiders must score higher on the civil service exam than the highest LAPD applicant. After Ed Davis retired in 1978, and Gates for the third time reached for the ultimate prize, an outsider, the police chief from Santa Monica, actually had the top examination score. But with the addition of the seniority points LAPD applicants are allowed to add to their grades, Gates became the high man, and the Santa Monica chief was excluded from consideration. Tapped then by the Police Commission, Gates finally became chief of the LAPD.9

Ed Davis was a tough act to follow, known to friend and foe alike during his tenure as chief as “Crazy Ed.” One year he tried to get the City Council to buy the department a submarine to interdict drug smugglers, and it was his opinion that plane hijackers (this during the D.B. Cooper days, when hijacking for ransom was much in vogue) should be strung up at LAX. He was intensely homophobic, and once, with great trepidation, I suggested to the writer Jan Morris, who had recently undergone her transsexual operation, that she could better understand Los Angeles for a piece she was doing if she interviewed him. If Davis knew his interviewer’s medical history, he never let on, and the two of them charmed each other. “He was on the whole the most impressive man I met in L.A.,” Morris wrote, “but impressive in a faintly forlorn way.”

It is not that he really…harbors malice when he speaks of “raving faggots”…. What dates him, and gives him a paradoxical poignancy, is his apparent belief that Order can somehow cure society’s ills…. He is really animated, I think, by an old school traditional faith in the redemptive power of discipline. He is a man of unchallenged technique, but like the technique of the automobile that made L.A. what it is, it is the technique of an older America. It is not yet discredited…but it is distinctly outmoded.10

Gates was a defender of this one true faith, but he was also trying to replace a star, in need of a bold stroke to emerge from Davis’s large shadow, and in his first try he fell flat on his face. A week after succeeding Davis as chief, Gates held a press conference and produced one Peter Mark Jones as the Hillside Strangler, that year’s high-profile serial killer case in which a dozen young women, mostly prostitutes, had been murdered in the most repugnant and sexually abusive ways. Jones had been fingered by George Shamshak, a small-time Boston hood and snitch, who was acutely uncomfortable at the prospect of doing time in a Massachusetts slammer in the company of a number of cons his squealing had helped put inside. By fingering Jones, a casual acquaintance, Shamshak hoped that California authorities would do him a favor and let him do his time in a more congenial West Coast joint.

There was only one hitch: Jones was innocent. At a second press conference, Gates was forced to announce that his case had sprung a leak; at a third he announced that Jones had been released from custody and he issued him a public apology. He continued to maintain, however, that Shamshak remained a prime suspect; a few weeks later, Shamshak was cleared of involvement in the Strangler case. (For the record, it was several years before the Strangler murders were finally solved, largely via the detective work of homicide investigators from the Los Angeles County sheriff’s office, with precious little help from detectives in the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Squad. The Hillside Strangler ultimately proved to be two men, Kenneth Bianchi and his cousin, Angelo Buono; in two trials lasting several years, each was convicted, and sent to prison for life without possibility of parole.)

Gates’s first years were a succession of such pratfalls. Criticism of him, difficult as it is to imagine today, permeated the department. He was “in over his head,” the complainers said (never for attribution), he was an implementer, not an innovator, he had “hit his level of competence as an assistant chief.”11 One critic who did go on the record was Assistant Chief Jesse Brewer, and he could do so because he was essentially fireproof: he was not only the highest-ranking black in the department, but also the first to reach the rarefied upper echelons at Parker Center. “Well, he is trying,” Brewer told the Los Angeles Times with the most left-handed of compliments, but he thought Gates indulged in too much “negativism” and “namecalling,” and that there was an absence of direction from the chief’s office. “Nobody knows what’s going on,” Brewer complained, “there’s a lot of frustration at the department.”12

Gates uncharacteristically did not fire back at Brewer, but neither did he pay any attention to him. If he tended to shoot from the lip, he was also getting exactly the kind of department he wanted. No example made this point more clearly than the case of Eula Mae Love. On the afternoon she died, Eula Mae Love was thirty-nine years old, five feet, four inches tall, and weighed 175 pounds. A widow of six months, she was the mother of three daughters, two of whom still lived with her at her bungalow home in South Central Los Angeles. Her major source of income was the $680 a month that came from her late husband’s Social Security allowance. Her water bill was $80 in arrears, her gas bill six months and $69 overdue.

On January 3, 1979, a Southern California Gas Company maintenance man appeared at Eula Mae Love’s house and told her that she would have to pay an installment of $22.09 on her overdue bill or have her service cut off. When the gas man tried to get to her meter, Eula Mae Love became abusive and hit him with a shovel, raising welts, abrasions, and a swelling beneath the elbow that caused him to retreat to his truck. After his departure, Eula Mae Love walked to the local Boys Market and purchased a $22.09 money order, the exact amount due on her gas bill.

From his truck, however, the gas company serviceman had already filed an assault complaint against Eula Mae Love with the Los Angeles Police Department and also requested “officer assistance to insure there would be no further violence.”13 In the meantime, two other vehicles from the gas company joined the first serviceman. The presence of all the gas company vehicles caused Eula Mae Love to become “irrational”; she went into her house and emerged with an eleven-inch-long boning knife, half of which was handle, and with it she began hacking at a tree.14

It was at this moment that two LAPD officers arrived on the scene, exiting their cruiser with their weapons drawn. Eula Mae Love told them to kiss her ass. She called them cocksuckers and she called them motherfuckers. She waved her knife. One officer knocked it from her hand. Eula Mae Love tried to pick it up. At which point the two officers opened fire, squeezing off twelve shots in less than four seconds. Eight bullets hit Eula Mae Love, seven of which were described in her autopsy report as “not immediately life-threatening.” The eighth was “a penetrating wound of the chest…[whose] track passes through the skin, fat and muscle of the left anterior chest wall, enters the left thoracic cavity…perforates the upper lobe of the lung…exits the right pleural cavity…adjacent to the spinal column…. OPINION: This gunshot wound is immediately life-threatening.”15

According to the DA’s report, the two police officers arrived at Eula Mae Love’s house at 4:15 PM; Fire Department records indicated that an ambulance was summoned to pick up her body at 4:21. Six minutes, including the lag time between the shooting and the calling of the ambulance. This was pro-active policing at its most lethal.

Even waving a boning knife, Eula Mae Love, a distraught 175-pound fat lady, should not have posed much of a threat to officers willing to give her a little space until she calmed down. Gates, however, would hear no criticism. In a speech to the County Bar Association covered on local TV, he attacked the press for “wringing every single drop, every tear” from the Love case. His voice oozing sarcasm, he referred to Eula Love as “the poor widow trying to keep house and home together.” The implication was that Eula Love was a deadbeat, and his department was not about to take an extra ration of guff from any deadbeat. It was the same contemptuous posture he had perfected when twelve years later he would comment on the Rodney King incident (“We are showing a great deal of sympathy for this guy…”). A department investigation concluded that the death of Eula Mae Love was a good shoot.

The Eula Mae Love affair, and Gates’s reaction to it, established the give-no-quarter tone of his department. Tough was the ultimate value; testifying before a congressional committee, Gates said that “casual drug users should be taken out and shot.” (Asked if this applied to his own son, who was an addict, Gates said that an addict was different from a casual user, although of course every addict begins as a casual user.) To this doctrine of toughness, Gates brought an intellectual and scriptural underpinning that William Parker might have envied. The chief was an in-demand public speaker, more preacher than raconteur, and into his basic sermon he liked to incorporate his “Little Savage” theory:

Every newborn baby is a little savage. The humanists, of course, will argue that man must be inherently good, because he is God’s creature, so it must be the environment that makes him bad…. He’s a poor, poor deprived little creature. Well, that’s just not true. You don’t teach little kids to do things wrong, do you? How many times do parents have to say, “Stop sharing your toys, Johnny. Gosh, you’re just too good.”16

What Gates was getting at, of course, was the need for the thin blue line to take the place abdicated by parents, schools, and the churches in enforcing rules of conduct and discipline, a last line of defense against the permissive society. One solution he brain-stormed was for a kind of prison camp in the California desert, big enough for 500,000 misfits of all varieties. “I’d like to see a whole big section of the Mojave fenced off,” he told Bella Stumbo, “and irrigated to create a self-supporting society for them.”17 In other words, something like an American Australia.

Convinced that the nation’s moral fiber was growing slack, Gates liked to characterize himself as the prophet Jeremiah, under siege from society’s fools, deputized by God himself to provide a path toward salvation. Toward this end he had packaged what he called his “Jeremiah Speech.” “Sometimes I feel like Jeremiah from the Bible,” Gates would begin, according to Bella Stumbo, who was present at one rendition:

God chose Jeremiah. He said, “Look, Jerry, we got a Problem…. My children, they’re not doing right, Jerry, I’ve given them a whole bunch of rules, and they’re not paying any attention at all. So I’ve decided, Jerry, that I need you to spend all your time telling them. Now, Jerry, they’re going to throw rocks at you. They’re going to ridicule you. They’re going to persecute you, Jerry. You tell them, Jerry, that I love them, that I do indeed them. But you tell them, too, Jerry, that they’re going to have to change….”

At this moment, Stumbo reported, Gates’s voice began to thunder, God in his full wrath, the audience hushed and completely under his spell:

…And if they don’t, then you tell them, Jerry…they are going to die.18

From Parker through Gates, this Messianic strain has persisted in the upper echelons of the LAPD; its vision is carried today by Robert Vernon, Gates’s assistant chief in charge of operations, the number three man in the department and overseer of 84 percent of its personnel. Until recently Vernon, on the force for thirty-seven years, was one of the favorites to succeed Gates; in 1978, when he was only forty-four, he had in fact been one of the three finalists in the chief race that went to Gates. In the department, Vernon is known as “Reverend Bob,” and many officers say that his high profile in fundamentalist Christian circles has furthered the idea that the way up the greasy promotion pole is to be seen at the Grace Community Church in the San Fernando Valley, where he often preaches. Cops who attended one service where Vernon spoke were given pocket Bibles and small flashlights “to light the way.”19 Jesse Brewer complained bitterly that Vernon’s fundamentalist views affected personnel decisions at the department. Vernon, Brewer told the Christopher Commission, “usually succeeds in getting…members of his God squad promoted, and good assignments.”20

Over the past twenty years, Vernon has made a number of Christian audio-tapes, called “The True Masculine Role,” and to read the transcripts is to make Gates, in his Jerry mode, seem a little less loony:

ON MEN AND WOMEN: “Not only is man to rule over the world, the animals and everything here, but he’s to rule over women…. And I am convinced because God has said that women’s role is to be submissive that they really want, underneath it all, for you to be the decision-maker…. Wives ought to be subject to their husbands in everything. That includes physical relationships.”

ON JESUS CHRIST: “Jesus was, I like to say, a big moose…[not] a little twinkie…. He was a masculine guy….”

ON UNRULY CHILDREN: “I’ve spanked boys as old as sixteen or seventeen…. I mean, I hit them with a boat oar…. I tell them, If you use drugs, I’m going to spank you with a boat oar. But I don’t do that with girls once they start puberty.”21


However cops would snicker at Vernon’s jeremiads or Gates’s “little savage” ideas, they implicitly tended to codify what increasingly was becoming the LAPD’s isolation from the rest of the population, its reliance on the idea of US against THEM. That class resentment might be at the root of US vs. THEM is the unmentionable subject. The LAPD, remember, is almost 70 percent white, and in recent years has had trouble recruiting locally, hence the importance to the department of T.J. Hooker and Hunter and the other network LA cop shows. Of the four officers involved in the Rodney King beating, two came from small towns out of state, Theodore Briseno from Mattoon, Illinois, and Timothy Wind from Shawnee, Kansas; Mattoon and Shawnee would not seem to be the best or the most empathetic preparation for LA’s Hollenbeck or Newton divisions.

Few officers, moreover, actually live in the city proper. Although the LAPD does not give out the addresses of its personnel, it is estimated that less than a quarter actually live within the city limits. Even if cheaper housing were available in the city proper, most cops would still prefer the new and featureless middle-class (read white) suburbs at the outer edges of Los Angeles county, as in Castaic, say, where Sergeant Stacey Koon lives, or in similar towns in neighboring Ventura, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties. These are fast food and mini-mall communities; living there entails a drive to work of an hour or two each way, further adding to the cop’s isolation from the city, and to the idea that Los Angeles is a foreign place. Being among his own kind also lessens the cop’s sense of cultural disenfranchisement. The white cop is usually of blue-collar or lower-middle-class background, a military veteran, and seized by the idea, not entirely unfounded, that the white middle class favored with opportunity looks down on him, except of course when crime or the criminal element threatens to intrude. US vs. THEM allows the cop to sentimentalize his situation, much as does the other ranker in Kipling’s “Tommy”:

For it’s Tommy this, and Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute,”
But it’s “Saviour of his country,” when the guns begin to shoot.

There is of course something self-aggrandizing in US vs. THEM, in the conviction that the thin blue line was society’s last line of defense. Under its last four chiefs, the LAPD made use of this dogma to justify its transformation into a kind of paramilitary army of occupation, antagonistic to the citizenry it was sworn to protect and to serve. The inexperience of the department, with 38 percent of its 8,400 officers having served four years or less, helped fuel this antagonism. In a Los Angeles Times interview with Robert Scheer after the Rodney King incident, the novelist Joseph Wambaugh, three years a US marine and fourteen an LAPD cop, said that it was a force filled with “super-aggressive twenty-two-year olds, full of testosterone, full of energy, absolutely immortal, and unable to admit fear, unable to verbalize fear, even to themselves.”22

The relative youth of the LAPD perhaps suggests why, of the six largest police departments in the country, it is the most trigger-happy. Compared with officers in the other five largest US cities, LAPD cops killed or wounded the greatest number of civilians, adjusted to the size of the police force. In 1986, LAPD officers killed 3.0 persons per 1,000 sworn officers and wounded 8.1. Detroit, with the second highest violent and property crime arrest rate, followed distantly, having comparable numbers of 1.2 and 5.0, respectively.23

To Wambaugh, police work “is not about physical altercations, it’s not about shooting people.”

The truth of the matter is…that police work is not that dangerous a job physically…. It’s not as dangerous as working in a mine or working on a building as an iron-worker. But emotionally it’s the most dangerous job on earth. The main killer of cops is premature cynicism—that producer of alcoholism and cop suicides and divorces and excessive force.24

This emotional strain fuels the hostility that lurks just below the surface of the police psyche. As a citizen and as a reporter, I have been repeatedly struck by the element of theatricality in the performance of LA cops, the sense that the 9mm Beretta in an investigator’s holster and the handcuffs hanging from the back of a patrol-man’s belt were the ultimate social equalizers. I never met one who did not like to tell stories, stories as polished and smooth as old stones, parables about the thin blue line, about the criminal scum and garbage, and how civilians do not understand the cop’s life.

The citizen should be under no illusions about what the Los Angeles cop thinks of him. In the computer telecommunications of LAPD cops on patrol, a favorite term of opprobrium, one rich with particularity, is “asshole,” usually spelled as “a/h” or “ah.” The asshole, generally a white, middle-class civilian of no felonious intent, “is a person who does not accept whatever the police officer’s definition is of any situation,” says Jim Fyfe, a former New York cop, now a professor and law enforcement specialist at American University. “Cops expect everybody, including a stopped motorist, to be subservient. Any challenge, or the mortal sin of talking back, and you become an ‘asshole.’ And ‘assholes’ are to be re-educated so they don’t mouth off again.”25

Re-education took many forms:

—“Michael Bernal, a white male, lost two teeth and suffered multiple concussions resulting in permanent brain damage when several officers beat him in a holding cell in May 1981. Bernal had been arrested for outstanding traffic warrants…. The City Attorney recommended settling the case for $300,000.”26

—In 1986, cops roughed up a Hispanic named Jesse Larez, whose son they claimed was hiding a weapon used in a gang murder. Jesse Larez mouthed off to the officers (cops said he tried to punch one out) and wound up with a broken nose. He sued the LAPD for the excessive use of force, and was awarded a judgment of $90,000 by a federal jury. Outside the courthouse, Gates told reporters, “He’s lucky that’s all he had broken. How much is a broken nose worth? I don’t think it’s worth anything.” The trial judge allowed these remarks to be admitted into evidence, and the jury tacked on an additional $170,000 to the judgment, to be paid personally by Daryl Gates. The City Council voted to pick up Gates’s $170,000 tab.

—Joe Morgan, the baseball Hall of Fame second baseman (and a black), was stopped by a narcotics cop at Los Angeles International Airport on the grounds that he fit the profile of a drug courier. Words were exchanged, and Morgan was wrestled to the ground, handcuffed, and busted. Morgan sued for false arrest, and won a verdict of $540,000. Gates was unapologetic:

Joe Morgan fit the profile and was detained, not much more. Apparently some wrestling went into it. We don’t think the officer was wrong. But even if the officer was wrong, is that worth destroying him? Because the next question is one the American public has to ask: “Do you think that police officer is ever going to stop another person?27

These, however, were only individuals; against a neighborhood, the LAPD could be a punitive force of almost biblical wrath. I remember a few years ago sitting in a corridor at the county courthouse in downtown LA, listening to a desultory conversation between two uniformed cops, a man and a woman, waiting to testify at a preliminary hearing. “Did you hear we took down a whole block last night?” the woman cop said.

You mean 47th?” the male cop said.

The 1100 block, right,” the woman cop said. “Not that much money and not that much coke, but I think there were only two houses left that hadn’t been rearranged.”

Rearrangement was re-education on a broad scale. In the summer of 1988, the department decided to rearrange two apartment houses at 39th Street and Dalton Avenue, just west of the Los Angeles Coliseum, a gang area where sidewalks and abandoned buildings were often spray-painted with the letters “FTL,” or “Fuck The Law.” Under the command of a sergeant, eighty-eight officers descended on the neighborhood, searching for drugs and gang members. Armed with sledgehammers and battering rams, the cops destroyed four apartments, smashed windows, tore toilets from their pipes, and demolished ceilings and walls, leaving so much destruction in their path that the American Red Cross offered to provide disaster relief. To show they had been there, the cops spray-painted their own slogan, “LAPD RULES,” and made those they arrested whistle the theme song of The Andy Griffith Show as they were marched into the station house for booking.

Only tiny amounts of marijuana and cocaine, belonging to two nonresidents, were actually discovered. An internal LAPD investigation catalogued 127 separate acts of vandalism, and concluded blandly that the officers involved “were led astray by poor supervision and management,” and “generally understood” from their instructions that the houses were to be made “uninhabitable.” The report further noted that the officer in command “failed to take charge when there were obvious signs of misconduct…[and] opted instead to leave the scene.” In spite of the report, few officers involved were actually reprimanded; twenty of them in fact have been promoted, four to sergeant or detective, including one who was disciplined for making false statements on a search warrant affidavit. Four others have been promoted twice since the raid.28

To date, the city has paid out $3.4 million settling property-damage claims stemming from the assault at 39th and Dalton. Gates thinks the amount ridiculous. “This payment is about two point five million dollars more than any possible damage,” he told Diane K. Shah in Playboy. “You could have repaired them all [the apartments] and they could have all bought brand new cars for five hundred grand and then some.”29

The 39th and Dalton judgments are unusual only in their size. From 1986 through 1990, the city has had to pay out more than $20 million dollars in judgments, settlements, and jury verdicts in over three hundred lawsuits alleging excessive force by the LAPD. Gates has never liked to investigate the civil complaints too closely, because the results of the investigation would have to be turned over to the plaintiff during discovery, and the LAPD would in effect be doing the plaintiff’s work. In any case, he thinks the judgments are the result more of a permissive legal system than of any flaw in the operation of the department. The Christopher Commission did not agree. “This problem must not be dismissed as resulting from out-of-control juries or inadequate defense lawyers,” the report said. “Too often…the officers’ conduct was egregious, their testimony not credible, and the City Attorney’s settlement recommendation prudent in the face of the evidence and likely result.”30 The clause “their testimony not credible” is a lawyer’s fancy way of saying that the cops committed perjury.


Even before the Christopher Report was published, just a hundred days after the commission was charged, Daryl Gates seemed to sense, although there had been no leaks, that something was amiss. The quintessential bureaucratic infighter, he smoothly offered to chair any committees that might be formed to implement and enact whatever reform proposals the commission would recommend, a fox-in-the-henhouse suggestion that Warren Christopher dismissed out of hand. Gates appeared hurt at the idea that he had an ulterior motive. “I simply wanted a process in place ready to go,” he said. “That’s good management.”31 The report was issued less than three weeks later, and all ten of its members, including the three hand-picked by Gates, signed off on it. “The Rodney King beating stands as a landmark in the recent history of law enforcement, comparable to the Scottsboro case in 1931,” is how the first sentence of the report begins, and right there, twenty-two words in, the Scottsboro Boys evoked, Daryl Gates must have known he was in bad trouble.

There were of course the usual fulsome compliments mandatory in any commission report. “The LAPD can be justifiably proud of its many strengths,” the report said. “It is widely recognized throughout the United States for efficiency, absence of corruption, quality of personnel, sophistication of technology, and accomplishments in crime fighting.” It “has done an outstanding job of creating a culture in which officers generally do not steal, take bribes, or use drugs.” Its DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, in which officers went into the schools to speak against the evils of drugs, has “been viewed by officers and the public alike as a major achievement.”

The rest of the nearly three-hundred-page report was methodically presented almost as if it were a grand jury indictment, owing nothing to the waffling so characteristic of other commission reports. In executive session, the commissioners and their staff heard over fifty expert witnesses, and conducted interviews with over five hundred current and former LAPD officers, including fifty who were homosexual; in addition, nine major computer-aided studies of documents and statistics yielded “their own truths independent of after-the-fact opinions or reconstructions.” These included reviews of all the LAPD’s use of force reports from 1987 to 1991, as well as MDT communications from department patrol cars in six sample months over a sixteen-month period between 1989 and 1991; an examination of all public complaints filed against the department between 1986 and 1990; and an analysis of the eighty-three civil damage suits involving excessive force claims settled by the City Attorney for more than $15,000. In all, the commission, its staff, and computers reviewed more than one million pages of documents.

The report did not shrink from judgment. “The Commission found that there is a significant number of officers in the LAPD who repetitively use excessive force against the public and persistently ignore the written guidelines…regarding force.”

This finding is documented and confirmed…by the detailed analyses of documents and statistics performed by the Commission. Our computerized studies of the complair ts filed in recent years show a strong concentration of allegations against a problem group of officers. A comparable study of the use of force reports reveals a similar concentration. Graphic confirmation of improper attitudes and practices is provided by the brazen and extensive reference to beatings…in the MDTs. The Commission also found that the problem of excessive force is aggravated by racism and bias.

In spite of its official prose, the Christopher Report is compulsively readable, its graphs, charts, statistics, and transcripts the stuff of a Jim Thompson roman noir. “We know who the bad guys are,” the now retired assistant chief Jesse Brewer told the commission. “Reputations become well-known.” Ten percent of the officers generated 27.5 percent of all citizen complaints of excessive force, and ten percent accounted for one third of all the use of force reports. In the years covered by the database, one officer had thirteen allegations of excessive force, five complaint allegations, twenty-eight use of force reports, and one shooting; another had six excessive force reports, nineteen complaint allegations, ten use of force reports, and three shootings.

The failure to control these officers is a management issue…. The documents and data we have analyzed have all been available to the Department; indeed most of this information came from that source. The LAPD’s failure to analyze and act upon these revealing data evidences a significant breakdown in the management and leadership of the Department….

We recommend a new standard of accountability…. Ugly incidents will not diminish until ranking officers know they will be held responsible for what happens in their sector, whether or not they personally participate.

Ugly incidents had instead often been rewarded with official plaudits. Officer A dragged a cord-cuffed arrestee down the corridor of his station house by his feet; his efficiency report praised his “truly caring attitude.” Officer B hit an arrestee on the back of the neck with the butt of his shotgun while the suspect was kneeling and handcuffed; his “most outstanding asset,” read his performance evaluation, “is his outstanding personality and easy going manner.” Officer C was suspended for ten days after hitting two black arrestees who were kneeling with their hands behind their necks, an event witnessed by a local TV crew. Two years later, he was accused of kicking another suspect in the stomach, a complaint that was sustained. His evaluation mentioned neither incident. Officer C, it said, “usually conducts himself in a manner that inspires respect for the law and instills public confidence.”

Some cops took out their excess energy on other cops. “There was a fellow who was involved in 39th and Dalton,” Assistant Chief David Dotson told the commission.

We transferred him to Foothill to get him the heck away from South Los Angeles. Now he got there and about one of his first acts was to take off his Sam Brown belt and challenge somebody to fight out in the street, and eventually head-butted him, whatever, with his forehead, broke the guy’s lip, and so on. So we took him out of the field…we decided he shouldn’t be in the field. He was supposed to go to work at the desk, where at least he would have to come around the desk to assault somebody.

When the senior officers did impose punishment, the harsher penalties were reserved for conduct that embarrassed the department. An officer caught in a “liaison” with a hooker, for example, would be more severely disciplined than one who beat up a citizen; one witness testified that the Department treated excessive force more leniently because it did not “violate the Department’s internal moral code.” Gates certainly had no problem with that ethic. In 1986, an internal disciplinary audit identified nine sustained cases in less than a year in which Gates, without any explanation or rationale, ordered that a complaint not be sustained; ignored the recommendation of the reviewing officers that punishment be imposed; or substantially reduced the recommended punishment. “The unfortunate byproduct of these reversals,” the report stated with some acerbity, “is that the involved officers were led to believe that their conduct in these matters was acceptable.” Small wonder that Assistant Chief Dotson told the commission “we have failed miserably in…holding people accountable for the actions of their people.”

The commission’s interviewers also homed in on racism within the LAPD family itself. There was telling anecdotal evidence that a black need not be a high profile athlete in an expensive automobile to have his car pulled over on the flimsiest of pretexts.

Incidents were reported of [off-duty] Afro-American officers being stopped by white officers in circumstances not resulting in an arrest or otherwise involving any apparent infraction or illegal activity…. In two of these incidents, notwithstanding the Afro-American officers having identified themselves as LAPD officers, the white officers were said to have responded that the identification could be stolen and would have to be checked.

In summary, the Christopher Report was Daryl Gates’s worst nightmare. Warren Christopher, smooth and impenetrable, in an act perhaps nastier in its lawyerly way than Daryl Gates at his nastiest could ever conceive (because Christopher knew what was in the pages he was handing over), delivered the report personally, in front of the TV cameras, to Gates, who with the hubris that was the signature of his tenure seemed oblivious to the idea that he was finished. The commission recommended that the chief be limited to a five-year term, renewable at the discretion of the Police Commission for a second five years. It recommended that the “selection, tenure, discipline, and removal of the chief…be exempted from civil service provisions.” It recommended that the selection process be loosened so that candidates outside the LAPD would be participating on a level playing field with the department’s own candidates. It recommended systems of accountability from the chief’s office to the most junior P-1 patrolman. And then the most killing sentence in the entire report: “For reasons set forth in support of the recommendation that the Chief of Police be limited to two five year terms, the Commission believes that commencement of a transition in that office is now appropriate.”

The fat lady has sung,” Ed Davis, now a California state senator, almost indecently crowed, but Gates, at least at the beginning, did not hear the melody. Vindictiveness, another signature of his reign, took over; officers whom he thought might have testified not entirely in his behalf, including Assistant Chief David Dotson, who at least was on the record, lost important posts, or were transferred to the LAPD equivalent of Siberia; old foes, including the head of the Police Protective League, were embraced and promoted. Gates bobbed, he weaved, he alone would decide his retirement date, he might stay on until 1993, he certainly had support—eight thousand letters sent to the commission backing him. Warren Christopher noted drily that a computer analysis of the ZIP codes on these letters perhaps suggested an organized letter-writing campaign. Gates’s vow to stay made Ed Davis “embarrassed for the institution…embarrassed that someone could think he had an irrevocable right to stay on…. The city doesn’t need him.”


As it happened, I was in Los Angeles the week the report was issued, and what I found most interesting in its aftermath was how surprised both Warren Christopher and John Arguelles were about how much Los Angeles had changed. These were sophisticated men of affairs, at ease in Washington and foreign capitals and appellate courts, who seemed to regard Los Angeles as some kind of temperate Forest of Arden, with a government to match. What they discovered was class and racial conflict, a city that had lost its official claim to civic innocence. No part of the Christopher Report recreated the style and the ethic of the LAPD more vividly, and caused more public comment, than the transcriptions of the MDT messages culled by commission staffers. The commission was appalled by what it regarded as the casual tolerance of violence and racism indicated by the MDTs. I confess, however, after reading the 693 MDT messages collected in a separate appendix, that I was both less convinced and less concerned than the commissioners.

Although the MDTs are meant to be used only for official business, officers on patrol generally regard them as video games, or CB radios, something to while away the dull hours of slow tours, to make dates, to schmooze and exchange insults, usually ethnic or sexual, with other cars. It is the badinage of the downtime, the vernacular of the good old boy and the bowling alley and the lower middle class, and it has been ever thus on the thin blue, or thin red line, where the enemy has always been the raghead (Desert Storm) or the gook (Vietnam) or the kraut or the slant or the slope; in the urban jungle it is the cholo (a Hispanic) or the homeboy (a black) or that ultimate quisling, the a-h.

Admittedly references to cholos and homeboys are rarely heard in the conference rooms at O’Melveny & Myers or Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, but then rarely do cholo or homeboy cops become partners at O’Melveny or Gibson, Dunn. As Joseph Wambaugh pointed out to Robert Scheer, most of the MDT messages were juvenile “crap,” the “gallows humor which is one of the cop’s most valuable tools as a self-defense in tragic situations. [It] is used to maintain denial situations, dehumanize the adversary: ‘He’s not like me. He’s an animal. He’s scum. He’s inhuman.’ ” To Wambaugh, the interpretation depends on the situation, who is saying what to whom, and under what circumstances; in many of the cholo and homeboy exchanges, a black is ragging a Mexican, and vice versa, and to each other they talk about “the jungle” and “downtown Tijuana.” “Is some of this stuff not funny…racist…and vicious, and does it go beyond ethnic interpersonal banter?” Wambaugh says. “Yes. Can I define it when it goes beyond that? No. But I know it when I see it.”32

A careful reading of the MDTs shows that as in rap lyrics certain refrains are repeated. There are three variations on “They give me a stick, they give me a gun/they pay me fifty gees to have some fun.” And three more variations on “I’m going to go out and violate some civil rights.” Another favorite: “Just remember, you can accomplish more with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.” A variation: “A day without violence is like a day without sunshine.” Another: “My shooting policy is based on nationality and looks.” A Freudian could make a life’s work from all the phallic references to the baton and the stick: “We got rid of our two lovely young ladies…they both needed a few rounds with the old baton.” The MDT encourages sexual daring: “Do U have big titties?” Many women officers give just as good as they get. “We joke with the guys just the way they joke with us,” Officer Lynda Putz told the Los Angeles Times. “Their hair, their bellies. ‘Oh, you got small shoes, what else is small?’ “33

Where the MDTs do give pause are in the references to homosexuals, pursuit, and beatings. Gays tended to get hit more often than straight people, one cop told commission interviewers, because “they love it, they want to get hit.” Another said, “It’s easier to thump a faggot than an average Joe. Who cares?” Another exchange: “Lick me.” “Rim me.” “Mmmmm.” “Faggots.”

Recently I was told by a criminal attorney in Los Angeles that almost no high-speed chase ends without a beating being administered, and the MDTs tend to reinforce that idea. What is also apparent is that pursuits make a cop’s adrenaline pump: “OK its your turn for a pursuit… I love them.” “I love pursuits.” Again: “I love pursuits.” “OK when’s my next pursuit?” One patrol unit advised another, “Drop back a block before you light him up, we want a good run.” Chasing the speeding quarry to earth offers the opportunity for “a little stick work,” the chance “to leave some big boot marks on their heads once they were in custody.”

Most of it is whistling in the dark. But sometimes it is not. The “anyone” of “I haven’t beaten anyone this bad in a long time” was Rodney King.

Gates was essentially a populist, and his appeal has always been to the San Fernando Valley and the low-budget suburbs and the eastern residential valleys, an embattled white middle class that felt itself ill-equipped to manage in a city becoming less white. His constituency had never been the downtown business community. For years downtown had kept its counsel whenever the LAPD went over the top in its harassment of minorities; as long as downtown crime was kept at a low level, this silence was seen as a tolerable quid pro quo. The King affair scrambled the equation: Daryl Gates and Rodney King had become the most visible symbols of the LAPD, an embarrassment, not good for business. Phoenix, I was told at lunch one day at the City Club, is losing more than $140 million from boycotts by groups protesting Arizona’s failure to adopt the Martin Luther King holiday; it took Dallas twenty years, the Cowboys, and a prime-time soap opera to get over the Kennedy assassination.

Suddenly there had arisen a nostalgia for elites, a yearning for another Committee of Twenty-five operating under the new demographics, a rainbow coalition, as it were, of the entitled. Downtown wanted to re-exert its influence, to end the factional political strife between the agencies of the municipal government. And here was a police chief who seemed to have flipped; under siege the department had become an imperium, with Gates its Nero, talking of himself in the imperial third person as “this chief,” communicating to his precincts via videotaped pep talks.

Even Gates’s most ardent supporters on the City Council knew this was a drama with only one ending. Like sheep dogs, they nudged him toward a decision. Tom Bradley, a master of indecision, added a nudge of his own, by naming the former black assistant chief Jesse Brewer to the Police Commission. The business community also joined the act. Its spokesman was Lodwrick Cook, Arco’s CEO, who at this juncture summoned Gates to lunch in a private dining room on the fifty-first floor of the Arco Tower. This was class warfare at its most brutal and uncompromising. Whatever the open-ended power granted to the chief under the City Charter, Gates was treated like a servant, an extremely powerful servant, but a servant nevertheless. The message was unequivocal: he had to go.

What was left unsaid, what Gates was free to translate, was equally clear. Los Angeles had become, or was becoming, an American city like any other, and as such could no longer afford wild cards in its deck. Were he to stay and cause further distress to the business community, he ran the risk of downtown not bankrolling any future ambitions, political or otherwise, he might have upon leaving the department; in his retirement he would only be comforted by his pension ($118;156 per year), and whatever ways he could find to express his considerable capacity for resentment. Not long after that lunch on the fifty-first floor of the Arco Tower, Daryl Gates set the date. He would retire in April 1992.

Nine more months at Parker Center appeared, for a man who had become a public embarrassment, an unseemly length of time to hang around, but at least he would be gone. Not however without trying both to reclaim his reputation and, perhaps more importantly for him, to limit the scope of the reforms suggested in the Christopher Report. It would not be Los Angeles if the City Council and the Police Commission did not begin squabbling almost immediately after the report was issued over who would rule what turf and who would set the agenda. Here was a situation made for Gates, who has always been a master of divide and conquer politics. In a letter to the City Council, he both defended his department in the most unapologetic way and urged the Council to go slow on the Christopher Commission’s proposals. Gates made it clear that he intended to speak out against the provisions he particularly opposed in the report, specifically term limitations for future chiefs.

Gates’s politicking earned him a public rebuke from the Police Commission, which began to look for ways to muzzle him. “If he’s talking policy,” said newly elected Police Commission President Stanley Sheinbaum, “he has to clear it with us.” It seemed an equivocal position for Sheinbaum, a former chairman of the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union Foundation. (Sheinbaum in fact had resigned from the ACLU’s board of directors after Gates’s supporters had attacked his ACLU connection.) Defeating or at least watering down the Christopher Report seemed to be Gates’s highest priority, a way of justifying himself and his reign. “I have a memory as long as forever,” he had told Bella Stumbo back in 1982, and the bitterness behind that remark still seemed to drive him. In his own mind, disgrace had passed him by. He talked big. “I still have significant power,” he said ominously at the end of the summer. “And I know how to use it.”

A Postscript

Shortly before eleven o’clock one night three weeks after Daryl Gates announced he would quit, two white officers stopped a black woman in the parking lot at Parker Center, and asked her for identification. The woman said she was coming to work at her job in the jail, but had forgotten her ID. An argument ensued, then a scuffle. The woman was hit with a baton, handcuffed, and arrested. Her name was Jennifer Jones, and she was, as she had insisted, a civilian employee of the police department; she had, according to an assistant chief, an “excellent record” and “was well-respected by her superiors.” It seemed not to occur to the officers to call upstairs to check the woman’s claim that she worked for the PD. Four years earlier, it turned out, the officer who hit Ms. Jones with his baton had shot and killed a black male. At the time, he had been sharply criticized by Gates for an “out-of-policy” shooting and ordered to undergo additional training in the escalation of force.

Nobody said it would be easy.

This is the second of two articles.

  1. 1

    Report of the Independent Commission (Los Angeles, 1991), p. 23.

  2. 2

    Report of the Independent Commission, p. 78.

  3. 3

    Report of the Independent Commission, p. 97.

  4. 4

    Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (Verso, 1990), pp. 294–295.

  5. 5

    Robert Fogelson, The Los Angeles Riots (Arno Press and The New York Times, 1969).

  6. 6

    Fogelson, The Los Angeles Riots, p. 320.

  7. 7

    Los Angeles Times, August 15, 1982. This information comes from Bella Stumbo in the Los Angeles Times of August 15 and 16, 1982. Her 30,000-word biography of Gates has not dated in the nine years since its publication and is still, even after the six recent months of extensive coverage, the best piece ever done on him.

  8. 8

    Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1982.

  9. 9

    Report of the Independent Commission, pp. xxi, 199, 202, 216.

  10. 10

    Jan Morris, Destinations (Oxford University Press, 1980), p.90.

  11. 11

    Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1982.

  12. 12

    Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1982.

  13. 13

    District Attorney Report, Special Investigations Division, Case No. 100-2070, April 16, 1979.

  14. 14

    District Attorney Report, Special Investigations Division, Case No. 100-2070, April 16, 1979.

  15. 15

    Autopsy Report No. 79-00133, Department of Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner, Los Angeles, CA, January 4, 1979.

  16. 16

    Los Angeles Times, August 15, 1982.

  17. 17

    Los Angeles Times, August 15, 1982.

  18. 18

    Los Angeles Times, August 15, 1982.

  19. 19

    Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1991.

  20. 20

    From the transcript of “Brewer’s Testimony Before the Independent Commission,” and the Los Angeles Times, July 18, 1991.

  21. 21

    Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1991, and Spy, August 1991.

  22. 22

    Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1991.

  23. 23

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

  24. 24

    Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1991.

  25. 25

    Fyfe is quoted in the The Village Voice, April 16, 1991.

  26. 26

    Report of the Independent Commission, pp. 58–59.

  27. 27

    Gates quoted in Vanity Fair, August 1991.

  28. 28

    Report of the Independent Commission, p. 39.

  29. 29

    The Playboy Interview: Daryl Gates,” Playboy, August 1991.

  30. 30

    Report of the Independent Commission, p. 63.

  31. 31

    Los Angeles Times, June 21, 1991.

  32. 32

    Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1991.

  33. 33

    Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1991.