In 1965, as a police field commander, future Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates watched the devastation wrought during the Watts riots and learned firsthand how urban unrest starts and how fast and wide it can spread. But even by his own admission, Gates' department was ill-prepared for what happened on April 29, 1992.
Before the not guilty verdict that set off the most devastating single urban riot in U.S. history, Gates had been criticized in the community for his weak response to the videotaped Rodney King beating and had lost favor among the Los Angeles political establishment, particularly among supporters of Mayor Tom Bradley. This led, he says, to his departments cavalier response to the growing unrest at the intersection of Normandie and Florence Avenues. A few hundred protesters gathered at the corner and were confronted by a relative handful of officers, who soon retreated to obtain proper equipment, like riot shields and batons, but ended up not returning.
Gates went to the epicenter, the 77th precinct in South Central L.A.,where he says, thanks to the political discord within the top ranks of the department, the commanders had failed to redispatch the officers. "When I got down there, I couldn't find a police officer. I jumped all over the (captains) down there and then they broke down the fences trying to get out there," Gates told TIME. "It took me five or six hours to put enough fear in my top commanders to get things moving. Once we did, it was over within 72 hours."
But the end of the riot was not the end of Gates' troubles. He fell under heavy criticism from every side, including his own rank and file, which said he had lost the ability to manage the department. With no support to fall back on, he resigned late in 1992.
Gates remained active in the city, beginning with a brief stint on a local talk radio show, then moved on to help create Sierra's Police Quest 4, a computer crime-solving game. He currently serves on the boards of Global ePoint, a security surveillance company; and PropertyRoom.com, an online police auction company, and lives in Dana Point, Calif.
Despite the riot, he says he still misses the department and has no regrets. "It's one of the things that will stay with me the rest of my life," Gates said. "I'm proud of my life and my accomplishments, so many things."
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