Brutality furor forces L.A. chief to polish image


LOS ANGELES -- As soon as the black-and-white images of what he calls the "infamous incident" flashed across U.S. television screens, Daryl Francis Gates was back on familiar turf.

Many times in his turbulent 13-year reign as Los Angeles police chief he has been on the defensive: the "normal people" controversy; the "Aryan broad" gaffe; the "El Salvadoran drunk" furor; the casual drug users "ought-to-be-taken-out-and-shot" uproar.

But this time the stakes are higher.

Every day, he has had to endure repeated telecasts of his officers beating an unarmed man. He has been mercilessly heckled and jeered. A citizens' committee is forming to oust him, newspaper ads have branded his department a "gang" and many opponents have compared him with President Richard M. Nixon in his final days in office.

So Chief Gates, bolstered by a show of confidence from his fellow officers and what he says are numerous cards and calls from citizens, has unleashed a public relations counteroffensive aimed at restoring his and the department's image during what is perhaps the most critical episode of his four-decade-long career.

Since the tape was first aired nearly two weeks ago, Chief Gates has appealed for support at a news conference, issued a somewhat equivocal apology, made peace with the Salvadoran community, appeared on several national television shows, and, to top it off, will address the Los Angeles chapter of the Public Relations Society of America later this week.

He has met with the Los Angeles mayor, huddled with his top commanders, welcomed a call of support from Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block and written a bewildered letter to columnist George F. Will after the right-wing wordsmith lashed out at Chief Gates as a "special problem for thoughtful conservatives."

Those who have grown accustomed to sparring with him say that he has appeared surprisingly cooperative, even docile, in his efforts to undo the damage and quiet the growing chorus calling for his resignation.

But the few confidants in Chief Gates' otherwise extremely private world insist that the chief's resolve to keep his $168,000-a-year job has only been strengthened by the controversy. If at times he has seemed less hard-nosed, they say, it is only because he has been so heartbroken by the images of uniformed officers repeatedly striking a prone and apparently defenseless Rodney G. King.

"His press image is not the real Daryl Gates," said former Deputy Chief William Rathburn, who recently resigned to head the Dallas Police Department. "He's an amazingly compassionate man. I'm sure he's taking this very, very personally. Probably more personally than he should."

In his efforts to smooth things over, however, Chief Gates has often fanned the flames. Those who know him agree that he thinks more like a soldier than a politician, relying more on hyperbole than prudence and always speaking off the cuff and on the record.

When asked at a news conference about his much-publicized apology, which has been described as backhanded because Chief Gates mentioned that Mr. King is a parolee, the chief simply restated the offending passage.

"You have to understand that the hardest thing there is for a police chief or a police officer is to apologize to a convicted armed robber with a long arrest history," he told reporters.

Requests by the Los Angeles Times to interview Chief Gates last week were declined. But the chief agreed to have a reporter present during a meeting with the Times' publisher and editors Thursday -- a meeting instigated by Chief Gates over concern that the newspaper's editorials had been unfair.

During the hourlong conversation, the chief touched on a wide range of topics, from the problem of excessive force to the continuing integration of his department. Asked if under any scenario he could envision himself resigning now, he said that he would first heed the advice of his wife of 21 years, Sima, who he affectionately calls "Sam."

"You think it's hard on me?" said Chief Gates, 64. "Actually, I can handle it. But, boy, it's really tough on her. . . . So, I asked her this morning. I said, 'Sam, would you rather I quit?' She said, 'Ab-so-lute-ly not. Ab-so-lute-ly not. You can't.' So that's my answer. Absolutely not."

In fact, Chief Gates predicted that the department would degenerate into chaos if he were to leave, with morale plummeting and an exodus of top officers. He will stay, he said, "because I need to stay."

The difference between this and previous controversies, he said, is that few others have so greatly affected the entire department. In most cases, officers are divided in their opinions. "There are no divided opinions in this one. They all know it's bad."

The bonfire erupted March 3, when amateur photographer George Holliday focused his new camcorder on the street below his apartment in the Los Angeles community of Lake View Terrace. On the tape, he captured 15 officers, at least three of whom appeared to be taking turns kicking and clubbing Mr. King, a 25-year-old construction worker.

The video first aired March 4 on a Los Angeles television station, but Chief Gates was in Washington attending a meeting on crime with the U.S. attorney general and did not see it until the next day. By then, it had been shown on Cable News Network and the national furor had begun to brew.

Chief Gates said that he has now seen the tape "too many" times, "more than I would like to count." But the first time, he said, was the worst.

"It made me physically ill," he said.

That first afternoon, at a meeting of the Police Commission, Chief Gates called the tape "shocking." But when he added that he would withhold judgment until after the incident had been fully investigated, the pressure quickly began to mount.

Two days later, in his first press conference since the tape was aired, Chief Gates attributed the incident to "total human failure" and called for the criminal prosecution of the three officers who appeared to be beating King.

But by calling it "an aberration," he failed to resolve the issue for the hundreds of critics who have insisted that excessive force is a commonplace occurrence, especially in the city's minority communities.

"Gates is simply not good at public relations," said Mark Ridley-Thomas, head of the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a candidate for Los Angeles' 8th Council District seat.

"He has exacerbated the 'us-against-them' mentality."

Clearly, the most publicly emotional moment for Chief Gates came during a rousing speech last Wednesday to his fellow officers who had gathered at the Police Academy for an "LAPD Day" luncheon.

As his colleagues finished their lunch, Chief Gates took the podium and spoke extemporaneously about the numerous recent shooting attacks on police.

He spoke about Tina Kerbrat, the first female officer killed in the line of duty, whose husband told Chief Gates at the funeral, "Chief, she was so proud, so very proud. . . . I want to thank you and the department for what you have done."

Then, Chief Gates, his voice beginning to boom, said: "This man, who just lost his wife, the mother of his children . . . wanted to thank the Los Angeles Police Department . . .

"Folks . . . if that does not encourage your heart, if that does not nourish your spirit, if that does not make you want to stand up and say proudly . . . 'We love the LAPD, we are proud to be part of the LAPD, and we hold our heads high' . . ."

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