Daryl Gates

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

The former L.A. police chief died yesterday.

I’m going to be less charitable than my colleague Tim Cavanaugh. I think Gates’ legacy is quite a bit more destructive. The aggressive, militaristic, reactionary approach to policing he popularized in the 1980s (as well as a wholesale lack of accountability and transparency) still reigns in most police departments in this country, even though cities that have moved toward more community-oriented policing tactics have seen better results.

More than any other single figure, we can thank Gates for the popularization of the SWAT team. Here’s an excerpt from Overkill, the 2006 paper I wrote for Cato on the rising use of paramilitary police units:

Longtime Los Angeles police chief Daryl F. Gates is widely credited with inventing the SWAT team in early 1966, though there’s some evidence that the idea was brought to Gates a year earlier, when he was inspector general, by Los Angeles Police Department officer John Nelson. The inspiration for the modern SWAT team was a specialized force in Delano, California, made up of crowd control officers, riot police, and snipers, assembled to counter the farm worker uprisings led by Cesar Chavez.

In search of new methods to counter the snipers and guerrilla tactics used against L.A. police during the Watts riots, Gates and other L.A. police officials quickly embraced the idea of an elite, military-trained cadre of law enforcement officers who could react quickly, accurately, and with overwhelming force to particularly dangerous situations. Gates brought in a team of ex-Marines to train a small group of police officers Gates handpicked for the new endeavor. Gates called his unit the Special Weapons Attack Team, or SWAT. City officials liked the idea, including the acronym, but balked at the word “attack.” They persuaded Gates to change the units name to Special Weapons and Tactics, though the new moniker was purely cosmetic—no change in training or mission accompanied the name change.

SWAT quickly gained favor with public officials, politicians, and the public. In August 1966, former Marine Charles Whitman barricaded himself at the top of a clock tower at the University of Texas and opened fire on the campus below. Whitman shot 46 people and killed 15. Police struggled for more than 90 minutes to remove Whitman from his tower perch. Public horror at Whitman’s slaughter quickly turned into support for Gates’s idea of training elite teams to complement city policing in dangerous situations like the Whitman massacre. SWAT teams subsequently began to pop up in larger urban areas across the country.

Three years later, the L.A. SWAT team engaged in a highly publicized shootout with the city’s Black Panther militia. Publicity from the standoff won the L.A. SWAT team and the concept of SWAT teams in general widespread public acclaim. In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Gates affirmed that the Black Panther shootout propelled the SWAT concept into the mainstream. “It was the first time we got to show off,” Gates said.

The incident also earned the unit a measure of glamour, and inspired yet more police departments across the country to begin training their own SWAT-like units. Gates’s L.A. SWAT team would again be featured in a celebrated standoff five years later, in May 1974, when SWAT officers traded thousands of rounds of gunfire with the Symbionese Liberation Army on live national television.

The SLA and Black Panther shootouts brought continued public fascination with the SWAT mystique. Gates’s experiment soon became a celebrated part of American pop cul-ure. A SWAT-themed television show debuted in 1975, and the show’s theme song hit the Billboard Top Forty. In 1995, Gates launched a SWAT video game franchise with Sierra Entertainment. The SWAT series spawned several award winning “first-person” style shooter games, the most recent version of which was released in early 2005.

Gates was also a hardened drug warrior (he founded the wasteful, ineffective DARE program), and as one of the country’s more prominent tough-on-crime personalities, pushed the war imagery and us-versus-them approach to policing that I’d argue has plagued America’s police departments and the communities they serve for a couple decades. He once told a Congressional committee that drug users should be “taken out and shot,” a comment he later called “calculated hyperbole.” I guess that was his way of deflecting criticism, but his explanation really misses the point. When your average LAPD cop hears his chief say drug users are disposable—at attitude Gates often conveyed in contexts other than at that hearing—it’s bound to have an effect on the way he treats suspected drug users in his day-to-day work. (Gates’ son was also a habitual drug user—though far as I know, Gates never tried to shoot him.) That’s not even getting into the odd racially-charged comments Gates has made over the years.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston, who covered Gates for the L.A. Times in the 1980s, has posted a pretty damning assessment of Gates’ legacy at LA Observed, focusing on what you might call a Hoover-esque approach to dealing with critics, activist groups, and political opponents. A few excerpts:

When Daryl Gates ran the LAPD from 1978 to 1992 he also ran a worldwide political spying operation. And he lavished time on it, sometimes several hours each day, including all the dossiers and reports he got on the lawful activities of L.A. leaders, elected and not, as well as political and religious groups he suspected were up to no good…

Locally, people of interest had their homes, offices and cars burglarized. Some were tailed, sometimes quite openly to intimidate them, to make sure they knew they were being watched. None of that is in the generally solid obituary of Gates in the L.A. Times today. But there was much more to the story.

There were no limits to what Gates would do to feed his insatiable need for secret information.

There were undercover officers assigned to sleep with women to gather political information that went to Gates, who spent 45 minutes to several hours each week on his spy files…

Locally, people of interest had their homes, offices and cars burglarized. Some were tailed, sometimes quite openly to intimidate them, to make sure they knew they were being watched. None of that is in the generally solid obituary of Gates in the L.A. Times today. But there was much more to the story.

There were no limits to what Gates would do to feed his insatiable need for secret information.

There were undercover officers assigned to sleep with women to gather political information that went to Gates, who spent 45 minutes to several hours each week on his spy files…

At a meeting in South Central that has been used by TV and many screenwriters, a gathering of blacks upset about LAPD violence erupted into demands from one person after another in the audience to attack LAPD officers and division buildings. The leaders at the actual meetings told these people to shut up. Year later court documents showed that the calls for violence all came from undercover LAPD officers, one of whom stole hundreds of dollars from the organization he infiltrated and served as treasurer…

And then there were the burglaries…

I had my cars broken into seven times, once when my Fiat Spyder was parked in the underground garage at Parker Center, the LAPD headquarters. All were smooth jobs – no broken windows or pry marks.

All of these burglaries had a common feature: every scrap of paper was taken, including twin 70-pound trunks of Grantsmanship Center training manuals that my wife used to teach grant writing and which I would take to and from LAX every few weeks when I dropped her off and picked her up. Anyone tailing me must have wondered what was in these trunks…

I knew that during the Vietnam War big city police departments built up their intelligence units. I was skeptical, even dismissive, of assertions by people associated with the ACLU that the LAPD was engaged in massive political spying.

Then one evening in fall 1980 it all changed.

Gates was at a social event and I walked over. After a bit he signaled everyone to go away. Gates was smart in this way, like Henry Kissinger. He always talked to me, knowing it was better to get his oar in and know what was coming than to be surprised.

He asked me, in the crude language of cops, if I liked women with red hair and large bosoms. Sure, I said, what guy doesn’t?

What in the world, I thought, prompted that question?

Immediately, Gates began recounting to me a blind date I had been on a few nights before, down to the details of what we ordered at LA Nicola on Sunset near East Hollywood. He even critiqued the champagne I shared with the woman who has been my wife now for almost 28 years.

Gates went on and on. As he spoke I realized that he had to tell me this. I realized that someone had seen us and knew Gates would want a full report and that Gates had this pathological need to make sure I knew what he knew.

When he had run dry I smiled and, in the sometimes crude language of reporters, told Daryl, which is what I called him, that I did not care if he knew with whom I was intimate.

We each got the other’s message. His was that he was watching me. Mine was that I am not afraid of anything or anybody and cannot be intimidated.

It goes on like that.

Most of the obituaries of Gates thus far have featured praise for his public service tempered with criticism for his mismanagement leading up to and during the L.A. riots.

But Gates’ real legacy is quite a bit more pernicious than mere incompetence.

Digg it |  reddit |  del.icio.us |  Fark

20 Responses to “Daryl Gates”

  1. #1 |  RM | 

    If you don’t know about it, that’s pretty scary to think about.

  2. #2 |  zendingo | 

    i think it’s time for the obligatory new professionalism post:)

    welcome to america headed in the RIGHT direction….

  3. #3 |  shecky | 

    Longtime L.A. resident here, and I’ll say you’ve done a great job summing up Gates’ career and legacy. He did his best to transform the LAPD into the modern para military gang of thugs they’re often regarded as. All I can say is that I’m not shedding a tear over his passing.

  4. #4 |  MacGregory | 

    Not shedding a tear either. This guy is one of the original assholes; a leader in transforming cops from “peace-keepers” to the paramilitaristic LEOs we see today. Sometimes we say “if Thomas Jefferson could see this, he would roll over in his grave.” In the case of this asshat, I’m sure he is standing tall on his grave with his little pecker fully erect. The only thing keeping it from 90 degrees is the weight of the tin star so firmly attached to it.

  5. #5 |  JS | 

    If Heinrich Himmler had come to his grave peaceably you can be sure most of the obituaries would have featured praise for his public service too.

  6. #6 |  Judas Peckerwood | 

    Fuck Daryl Gates and his cancerous legacy. It’s times like these when I wish that hell actually existed so that human shit like Gates could spend an agonizing eternity there.

  7. #7 |  Marc | 

    Peter Moskos on his Cop in the Hood Blog absolutely nailed Gates to the wall. A good blog that more people interested in CJ issues should be reading. http://www.copinthehood.com/2010/04/rip-daryl-gates.html

  8. #8 |  Charlie O | 

    Good riddance.

  9. #9 |  scott | 

    Here’s to hoping that “bad” things do, in fact, come in threes.

    Sheriff Joe… you’re up!

  10. #10 |  Neil | 

    He was also awarded the 1994 Ig Nobel Prize for Peace for his uniquely compelling methods of bringing people together.

    So he must have done something quite well. Seems like a lot of the news media isn’t bothering to report it for some reason.

  11. #11 |  Will | 

    He was a POS on all counts

  12. #12 |  Cynical in CA | 

    Sic semper tyrannis.

  13. #13 |  Chris | 

    A man inventing the militarization of police getting the Nobel Peace Prize?

    Huh. I guess you can see the agenda of the panel pretty clearly.

  14. #14 |  tb | 


    Ig Nobel Prizes. See 1992.

  15. #15 |  A.G. Pym | 

    I remember first hearing about SWAT teams on “Adam 12,” and as a 9 – 10 year-old-boy, I thought they were just the coolest thing ever.

    I definitely know better now.

  16. #16 |  zwitterion | 

    Im gonna quote Danny Devito on this one: “Flush that turd down the drain!”

  17. #17 |  Toastrider | 

    The irony is that I can see possible uses for a SWAT team, albeit more limited than they are currently employed. Maybe more like a qualification for existing officers, rather than a distinct and separate unit.

    The problem, though, is that when you have a shiny new hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And by God, Gates was going to use that shiny new hammer.

  18. #18 |  Peter Moskos | 

    Neil, The Ig-Nobel Peace Prize? It’s a parody. Get it?

  19. #19 |  Neil | 

    Umm. Yes, I know it’s a parody. I didn’t think it need to be explained, I thought it was obvious.

  20. #20 |  Cesar Chavez bleg « Entitled to an Opinion | 

    […] 28, 2010 Cesar Chavez bleg Posted by teageegeepea under Uncategorized Leave a Comment  Radley Balko’s post on L.A.P.D chief Daryl Gates got me thinking about this first, and then Steve’s recent essay […]