Former Los Angeles Police Department Chief Daryl Gates, best known for presiding over the controversial department during the Rodney King riot of 1992, has died. As Connie Rice, the L.A. lawyer, activist, irresistable temptress and second cousin of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said on the radio a moment ago, condolences to his family and the LAPD family.
The one time I spoke with Gates he was a great gentleman and an extremely interesting conversationalist, but I have no wish to defend his complex legacy. His notoriety stems chiefly from two points: his role in the militarization of policing and the abysmal criminal justice situation in South L.A. that set the stage for the 1992 riot. On the first point, it's fair to note that by the time Gates became chief in 1978, the S.W.A.T. organization had been a fixture of the LAPD for ten years, and the TV show S.W.A.T. had already been off the air for two. The LAPD's toxic racist history too was something Gates largely inherited. While nobody's on their oath when giving a eulogy, everybody I've ever talked to who knew him well maintain that, while he may have been "racially clueless" in Rice's words, Gates was not a bigot.
In fact, while Gates has never been much of a presence in Reason's pages, our past references to him give a clue to why the image of Gates as a rightwing troglodyte has always been inaccurate. Brian Doherty discusses the fight over the Gates-implemented "Special Order 40," which discourages officers from probing the immigration status of civilians. Renee Moilanen takes a hit off Project D.A.R.E., the wildly popular (if never actually succesful) program Gates started in the early eighties. And Fred Siegel looks at the primacy of group identity politics in law enforcement issues during Gates' administration.
What do all these things have in common? They all to some degree come out of the technocratic, "root causes of crime" sociology that held sway for a long chunk of the postwar era, and has never really gone away. Gates successor Bernard Parks, in a very gracious remembrance this morning, singled out the chief's zeal to put these ideas into action:
"He was the first person to talk about impact, prevention, and education, through efforts like the D.A.R.E. program, which may someday cut the tide of young people going into criminal justice system."
Parks went on to praise Gates' innovations in organization and technology, and these may end up being a more lasting legacy. But Gates' fondness for intervention and his belief in maximum force stem from the same fallacy: the idea that through better technical management you can impose positive outcomes on society. It sounds good in principle, but breaks down when you apply it to people whose job is to work with lowlifes in order to catch criminals. Gates may not be the first person who comes to mind when you think of the liberal technocratic consensus, but he was an appropriate person to have in charge when the whole idea blew up.