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LAPD Chief and SWAT Pioneer Daryl Gates Dies

April 16, 2010  | 

LAPD Chief Daryl Gates. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Police Historical Society.

Former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, who organized the first police SWAT unit and led the department during the Rodney King incident and riots that followed, has died at the age of 83.

Gates, who died at his Newport Beach, Calif., home after a short battle with cancer, rose up the ranks of the department he reshaped from a one-time driver for "Dragnet"-era chief William Parker to top cop from 1978 to 1992.

"Daryl Francis Gates was a one-in-a-million human being," LAPD's Chief Charlie Beck said in a statement. "He inspired others to succeed and, in doing so, changed the landscape of law enforcement around the world."

Gates, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, joined the department in 1949. His 5-foot-11-inch, 200-pound frame had gained him the nickname "The Bear" from fellow academy cadets, as John Buntin recounts in "L.A. Noir."

His first assignment as Chief Parker's driver may have gotten off to a rocky start—he didn't know how to drive the chief's new automatic-shifting Buick Dynaflow—but he was a fast learner, as he soaked in Parker's wisdom on the 15-month assignment.

He returned to juvenile patrol and was eventually promoted to sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and inspector (now known as commander) in 1965. He was supervising patrol officers in Watts that year, when racial tensions boiled over into rioting.

LAPD officer John Nelson, a Vietnam War veteran, and Gates developed the concept for the tactical unit for crowd control based on their experiences from that civil disturbance. SWAT eventually broadened its scope.

Gates became the department's 49th chief in 1978 at a time when drugs such as crack cocaine and PCP were fuelling crime trends.

To educate the city's youth about these dangers, Gates implemented the DARE anti-drug classroom initiative. Officers were trained as anti-drug educators and assigned to schools full time, said Glynn Martin, a former LAPD officer and executive director of the Los Angeles Police Historical Society.

"The mission remains largely the same today," Martin said. "We were teaching cops to be teachers, not to be enforcers or modifiers of behavior."

As chief, Gates often oversaw a department that needed to manage its patrol resources carefully. In the late 1970s, 6,400 officers were responsible for a 465-square-mile area. Today, nearly 10,000 patrol that same area.

Gates was popular with his officers, and could elicit ovations from law enforcement audiences after retirement.

"Chief Gates was a cop's cop, revolutionizing critical policing tactics and changing the face of modern law enforcement around the world," said Paul M. Weber, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. "The men and women of the LAPD join the community in offering our deepest sympathies and prayers to the Gates family as they endure this painful loss."

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