Brutality furor forces L.A. chief to polish image

March 17, 1991|By Jesse Katz | Jesse Katz,Los Angeles Times

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."

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