Daryl Gates, the Ruthless L.A. Police Chief Who Ran an International Spying Operation on the Side
David Cay Johnston covered the LAPD for the Los Angeles Times during the Daryl Gates era, and later won a Pulitzer Prize for the New York Times. In a visiting blogger piece for LA Observed, he describes his investigations into Gates' secret intelligence unit, an account that includes spying on Los Angeles leaders, sex, suspicious burglaries and Gates' attempts to intimidate Johnston. Daryl Gates died April 16, at the age of 83.
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 a 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.
To doubters reading this I invite you to carefully read Gates' 1992 autobiography, Chief: My Life in the LAPD, in which he boasts about some of this.
On page 72 Gates tells about Lt. Carl Abbott, who spent years undercover posing as a communist, including time in Moscow.
On page 231, Gates recounts how he knew every time Lew Wasserman, the head of movie and record company MCA, got on an airplane to Las Vegas. He says when he told Wasserman about this the mogul was astonished and wanted to know why. Because, Gates explained, you're important.
Gates even got one officer I interviewed, whose undercover work continued well into the 1970s, to Moscow and Havana. But by the time I got that story Gates had so intimidated someone high up at the Los Angeles Times or its parent company (or its owners) that the Times was too cowed to let me tell it.
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 that appeared in the Los Angeles Times. 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. That last detail Gates admitted to under oath and was reported by me and a Times colleague in late 1982.
One of these undercover officers admitted under oath to sleeping with a woman as part of his spying. After a recess in his testimony, he tried to soften it by saying he thought he really was her boyfriend.
I reported this in the Los Angeles Times in a story that told how the May Day 1982 violence between Revolutionary Communist Party marchers and the LAPD began when an undercover officer posing as one of the communists gave a signal for people to run. That gave the police a pretext to attack. No one would have known this except that the officer was inadvertently captured on videotape.
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.
My piece on how LAPD instigated the May Day riot was virtually the last story I wrote before the paper shut me down and moved on to a new narrative -- that the political spying bad guy was a single sergeant who lived in a trailer, rather than the carefully directed work of Chief Gates.
This narrative got big play in the paper, but there was no explanation of why all these secret files were created, who was identified in them and why they ended up in the hands of a secretive group associated with an Army general. The general, who once commanded American forces in South Korea, saw communists and conspiracies everywhere, a view Gates shared.
There were other women besides the one the officer in the May Day incident slept with for several years. I interviewed seven of them, who told me the same story of becoming intimate with buff young men who showed up at their political meetings. Only months or years later, after telling tales between the sheets to men they thought cared about them, did they find out they were just used to collect information. None of the other women would go on record because by the time I got to them they had married or had children or careers.
Gates had more than 200 officers as analysts and supervisors in the Public Disorder Intelligence Division, or PDID.
When Zev Yaroslavsky, then on the City Council, finally worked up the nerve to ask at a hearing how many undercover political officers the LAPD had, and how much they cost, the response was not subtle. A deputy chief told the councilman that if he did that and any undercover officer turned up dead, the council members would all become murder suspects.
That was all it took to stop the questioning from continuing: a silly assertion and politicians unwilling to call Gates' bluff. Gates felt invincible.
Then there were the burglaries.
Ira Reiner told me when he was city attorney that one day he came to work and found a locked file cabinet open, one file pulled up so the tab was visible. It was a file on the LAPD spy unit, the Public Disorder Intelligence Division.
Soon after that Reiner denounced "zealot officers" and said he would not represent the Public Disorder Intelligence Division any more. What he did not do was alert me to his plan or mention the riffling of his files and the obvious message he was sent.
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 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 made arrangements with the USC journalism school, where I taught reporting one night a week, that students had to keep a copy of the papers they gave me.
What was never taken was money. A nonsmoker, I left several dollars of change in the open ashtrays of my sports car and my Corolla sedan. After the first break-in, I left a gold ring, too. Strange, the burglar who cleans out a car's papers, leaving only registration, insurance card, coins and a gold ring.
Finally, in 1982, I complained to Reva Tooley, then the Police Commission chairman. At her insistence (and over the objections of some L.A. Times editors) I told my story to two Internal Affairs detectives, who sat stone-faced but listened and asked few, but smart, questions.
I did that because shortly before one of the many senior officers who spoke to me on the q.t., fed me memos and kept me well informed asked me to meet in an out-of-the-way place. He warned me that my work was getting into very dangerous territory for the LAPD and Gates.
This senior officer, whom I admired for his integrity, brought up the cases of several robbery victims who were shot and killed to eliminate the only witness. He said it would be very easy to stage a robbery. I thanked him, told him nothing would dissuade me and then wrote a memo to be used if anything happened to me. I told the IA investigators about that memo, but not where it was.
To be clear, I do not think I was in danger from the LAPD or Gates. But I also did not ignore the possibility that someone trying to curry favor with Gates, or protect some secret I came cross but whose dimensions I did not know, would act rashly and that my assessment would turn out to be dead wrong.
After I spoke to Internal Affairs, and Gates obviously got a detailed report of what I said, the car burglaries stopped.
Gates shifted to making claims that I did not have my facts right. In one case a report -- written on plain bond but sent by the chief to higher=ups at the paper -- asserted I was taking material from a communist newspaper. I laughed when I read the report. It was so obviously nonsense. The editors did not take it the same way.
I had never seen the communist paper articles, but more significantly my reports described as disputed issues what the communists called matters of fact. So I wrote a 4,000-word memo to my bosses making a point-by-point rebuttal demolishing every word in the report the LAPD had prepared, but made sure had no LAPD markings on it.
My intersection with Daryl Gates began in late 1979 or early 1980 when David Rosenzweig, later Metro editor, asked me to cover a police commission meeting. Soon he was sending the regular reporter, a writer of beautiful features, on assignments out of town and having me fill in until the story was all mine.
I had no idea what would follow. I had written at the San Jose Mercury, and from the L.A. Times' San Francisco bureau, about police red squads, as they were known in the days of J. Edgar Hoover. I even had a red squad officer in one Peninsula police department who was a neighbor when I worked at the Merc. It was just part of covering demonstrations in the late '60s and the '70s.
So like everyone who had covered these things, 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 each other's messages. His was that he was watching me. Mine was that I am not afraid of anything or anybody and cannot be intimidated.
I realized right then that the rumors and claims about political spying had real substance, and that I needed to just investigate to learn just how far it went. Was this just folderol or sinister? Was it being used to shape politics and elections? To protect misdeeds?
That night I thought about strategy since this would be a hard story to prove, a hard story to persuade the cautious editors of the L.A. Times to even touch and how crucial it would be to never make a mistake because one slip would end it for sure.
Gates was very media savvy. He knew how to speak in sound bites and code. No matter how angry Gates got over the facts I put in the paper, the chief always talked to me.
At public events he would sometimes point me out in the audience and tell people not to believe what I wrote because he did not say what I quoted him as saying. I would stand up, holding my tape recorder for all to see, and smile politely.
At the Los Angeles Breakfast Club, Gates gave his Jeremiah talk as if he was an Old Testament prophet warning the people of corruption and decay. Afterward people came up and asked me why I made up quotes. I pointed to the tape recorder and told them every word that appeared under my byline as a quote from Gates was on a tape. Still, they persisted, why did I make up the quotes? It was an early lesson in what we see today in the bizarre fact-free views of some Fox News fans.
Daryl Gates ruled the Los Angeles Police Department as if he were God, accountable to no one for 14 years because virtually alone among big-city police chiefs in America he had civil service status under the City Charter. And the city charter from 1922 and until after the Rodney King riots gave police officers a property interest in their jobs, a legal right of immense value.
Having a civil service interest in his job, Gates often said, made him free to speak his mind. It also allowed him to ruin the careers of those who dared question his wisdom and cover up his paucity of management skills.
Consider what Gates tried to do to Rudy Ticer, a veteran detective. Ticer believed one of his snitches had been wrongly convicted of a crime. Ticer knew the guy was a crook, but was convinced the crook was framed for this crime. Ticer could not live with that. On his own time, Ticer worked to free the man he believed was wrongly convicted.
Gates said Ticer was embarrassing the LAPD and suspended him. The crook had once, while in the Parker Center lockup, arranged for a helicopter ride, and if memory serves, for a woman, embarrassing the LAPD when the escapades got into the newspaper.
Ticer appealed. After a Board of Rights hearing, three senior officers gave him a slap on the wrist.
But what message did Gates send to his 8,000 officers about honesty?
Gates never took a dime. I am sure of that. But there are three ways to corrupt people: through their wallets, their zippers or their egos. Gates' dishonesty was all in his head.
After the Rodney King riots I wrote one last big Gates story.
The story ran on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I had gone to investigate the casino industry. I saw to it that every paper in Southern California that was a client of the old Knight-Ridder News Service knew they had a big scoop on the L.A. Times. My story ran on the front pages of the L.A. Daily News, Pasadena Star-News, Long Beach Press-Telegram, South Bay Daily Breeze, Orange County Register and other papers.
The L.A. Times ignored the story. As we reporters used to say, if it didn't appear in the Times it didn't happen.
The story was the internal review by top officers of how the LAPD responded to the riots. The Command Cadre Critique was a devastating indictment of Gates and a smoking gun, showing his paucity of management skill, something those senior officers who were not sycophants understood and which had motivated them to help me in the early 1980s.
Gates had not just gone off to a fundraiser when the riots broke out, he had no real plan. The thick document he held up on national TV was a fraud, not a plan of action. The critique said officers in riot areas lacked leadership, that those in charge did not know what to do and responses were uncoordinated. It even reported that some officers nearly got into fisticuffs over who would make donut runs.
Two of the L.A. radio jocks got on the air the morning the story broke and said obviously Willie Williams, the Philly police chief who later succeeded Gates, fed this to me. I called them and they put me on the air. I told them the document came from my old LAPD sources, reminded them of my L.A. Times coverage, and told them the only time I had met Williams was when, by chance, we both got on an Avis bus together at an airport.
KNBC asked for the documents. I gave them to Channel 4 on the condition that they credit the Philadelphia Inquirer and me.
The L.A. Times ignored the story. That vindicated my decision to alert its competition. It also reminded me that people need to be vigilant against not just police political spying, but monopoly news organizations.
In his biography of Otis Chandler, Dennis McDougal quotes me on the difference between the editors of the L.A. Times and the New York Times: "At the L.A. Times there was reverence for the writer's every word and no backbone. At the New York Times we follow the opposite policy."
The stories that Gates knew I was working on before the L.A. Times shut me down had to alarm him. There were safe houses and secret cash funds and contracts issued to relatives of high-ranking officers, once of which played a central role in the failure of what at the time was the most costly and difficult drug investigation the department had ever undertaken.
There were also dead bodies, including a most inconvenient witness to a fatal fight in which one of the undercover officers took part and who soon mysteriously turned up dead, his body recovered from that gargantuan concrete gutter known as the Los Angeles River.
When Gates knew I had the goods on his having officers overseas he grew determined to stop me.
I had found out about the undercover spy who was sworn in in the back seat of a car at a beach parking lot and spent two decades spying for the LAPD, which built up its intelligence in good part because J. Edgar Hoover did not trust Gates' mentor, Chief William H. Parker. I even knew how the LAPD tried to get him made a sergeant without taking the civil service exam, a tactic that failed.
Gates somehow managed to cow the owners and editors of the Los Angeles Times, keeping out of print any word about his global spying operation and the fact that one officer was undercover for nearly two decades gathering information on American communists. I know some of what he had on some of them so I understand this cowardice.
I interviewed the undercover spy, who died not long after. Years later I interviewed his brother, who also did intelligence, about this story that was too hot for the L.A. Times. It is a remarkable tale of courage, dedication and intrigue, filled with revealing history about how the government spies on its citizens' lawful political, labor and religious activities.
Gates also had a powerful bias against gays, despite his carefully nuanced public statements.
When I wanted to see what crazy thing Gates would say I would don a particular set of clothes and go see him: white cotton suit, socks and shoes, a pink shirt, a pink and teal tie, and a Panama hat with a pink hat band. Gates got so distracted that he made what even for Gates were amazing statements, amazing for their honesty and candor.
Once he asked me why I wore that outfit. "I dunno, Daryl, because I like it," I said. Gates was, for once, speechless.
Like a child, Gates blamed everyone but himself for his and his department's problems. This theme runs through his autobiography, written with the journalist Diane K. Shah.
Gates' autobiography displayed his lack of introspection, that adult capacity to examine one's life and see one's flaws and to appreciate how the rest of the world perceives the self. He relates stories that reveal how blind adherence to petty rules creates injustice, yet he never makes the connection between the incidents that shaped his life and his failed policies as chief.
In his book, Gates revealed that when he was a teenager growing up in a working-class L.A. neighborhood, he habitually defied traffic laws. Once Gates and a buddy slugged two cops who ticketed him for double-parking. They tossed Daryl in a cell but did not book him. His older brother Lowell pleaded with two other cops he knew to let the kid go and they agreed -- if young Daryl apologized. Gates refused at first, but finally relented and was released.
When he interviewed to become a cop in 1949, because the pay was better than any other work he could find, Gates suddenly realized that but for the slack those two cops cut him, he would never have worn an LAPD badge.
But that message of mercy went no further. Under Gates, cops who cut people slack felt the full measure of his disciplinary powers.
His book did not tell about the rookie bluesuit who saw a woman in a Hollywood bar smoking marijuana and made her flush the joint down the toilet. The next day the woman complained to the division desk sergeant that the cop had taken her property. Instead of laughing her out of the police station, the report was written up and sent to the chief. Gates suspended the cop for failing to arrest her in anticipation of firing him.
Meanwhile, Gates looked the other way when his cops fatally shot unarmed people (and choked unruly suspects to death at 15 times New York City's rate).
In his book, Gates defends the LAPD's practice of citing jaywalkers, though he doesn't mention that his cops routinely chased people into buildings, including the L.A. Times headquarters, to issue these citations. Jaywalking tickets reduce pedestrian injuries, he wrote, ignoring the fact that the police have more important duties.
Gates portrayed himself as the model of integrity. He used to brag in speeches that he had never swiped apples from a vendor's cart and that he would arrest any cop who did. He went easy, though, on cops who took payoffs of liquor and other gratuities for helping a towing firm make a fortune by illegally snatching cars off the streets -- one of many stories he didn't relate in his book.
Gates never examined his own responsibility for how the number of lawless officers ballooned on his watch, including a pair who went to prison for murder-for-hire and others who robbed citizens during traffic stops. Nor did he mention that during his watch, his brother, Capt. Steve Gates, drove his LAPD car to long lunches with a madam.
The LAPD was once the world leader in policing, the result of efficiencies and innovations wrought by Chief William H. Parker, who headed the department from 1950 to 1966. Parker took Gates under his wing, nurturing his career, although in the book Gates tries to minimize how having a patron at the top helped him advance.
But while Parker introduced staffing, report filing and analytical techniques that are now routine around the world, the only innovation Gates could point to is SWAT. After the 1965 Watts riot, Gates, then an inspector, put together a military-style unit. He told Ed Davis, who was later to become LAPD chief, that he would call it "SWAT."
"Oh, that's pretty good. What's it stand for?" Davis asked.
"Special Weapons Attack Teams."
Davis blinked. "No."
Gates wrote that he was crestfallen, but he almost instantly came up with a new name: Special Weapons And Tactics. That's world-class media savvy.
His book acknowledged harsh criticism leveled by Deputy Chief Dave Dotson and Assistant Chief Jesse Brewer, who was the highest-ranking black in the department before Willie Williams arrived from Philadelphia to succeed Gates. Testifying to a blue-ribbon panel appointed after the King beating, Dotson, a trusted ally, criticized Gates for being ineffective. Brewer gave Gates a D for his disciplining of officers.
Typical of his seeing conspiracies, Gates dismissed them as "Frick and Frack," writing that "it was clear to me that they had gotten together on their testimony."
On page 223 of his book, Gates reveals that he had 35 undercover agents, seeming to tell the secret that he hid from Yaroslavsky with a threat of prosecution for murder. It's probably not the truth. But then there's a lot of truth missing from his book and from the hagiographic obituaries that were published about Gates, a fascinating character who was also a threat to the liberties of the people.