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The Secret Police of Los Angeles: Daryl Gates' Paranoid Legacy

The former L.A. police chief, who died Friday, was notorious for presiding over a racist and brutal department (it had a nasty habit of strangling and shooting unarmed suspects to death), but he also had more than 200 spies keeping tabs on city bigwigs. One was even dispatched to Russia and Cuba, reports David Cay Johnston.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, who covered Gates for the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s, says the chief used his agents and the information they gathered to pressure political leaders and solidify his power. He also wasn’t above bragging about his secret files to the subjects under investigation, who included big shots of all stripes and even Johnston himself.

Beyond the spy ring and the LAPD’s infamous brutality, which was formalized in ways such as a chokehold policy that tended to kill people, Johnston shares other anecdotes about Gates’ 14-year reign of terror. His officers were quite capable of chasing jaywalkers off the street, but had no idea how to respond to the riots. And then there was the little matter of police-linked homicides:

There were also dead bodies, including a most inconvenient witness to a fatal fight in which one of the undercover officers took part and who [the witness] soon mysteriously turned up dead, his body recovered from that gargantuan concrete gutter known as the Los Angeles River.

That’s a shocking accusation, but it fits the picture Johnston paints of Gates: egomaniacal, paranoid, protective of officers who crossed the line but vicious to those who showed the plebes any mercy.

He sent “buff young men” to sleep with women of interest and gather information. His deputy threatened to prosecute City Council members for murder if they pried too deeply into Gates’ undercover operation. The chief sent an undercover officer to Moscow and Havana, because, Johnston explains, he “saw communists and conspiracies everywhere.”

Time and again, Gates put pressure on the L.A. Times and the only major paper in town backed down. Johnston, who ended up leaving the paper, writes of his former bosses:

Gates somehow managed to cow the owners and editors of the Los Angeles Times, keeping out of print any word about his global spying operation and the fact that one officer was undercover for nearly two decades gathering information on American communists. I know some of what he had on some of them so I understand this cowardice.

Johnston’s lengthy indictment leaves out some of Gates’ better-known failings, but it’s worth reading about the sins that got less attention. We all try to be nice to the dead, but Gates’ legacy still haunts Los Angeles. — PZS

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