The former Los Angeles police chief, Daryl Gates, who died last Friday of cancer at his home in California, is being widely credited in mostly laudatory newspaper obituaries as the man who developed the idea of Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) units – those paramilitary police teams so loved by Hollywood filmmakers – who bring the art and weaponry of modern warfare into communities, breaking into houses with faces covered in ski masks, and carrying assault weapons in order to make arrests for often minor offenses, or blowing away people – often innocent people – in what the modern military calls “force escalation incidents.”
But Gates was more than just the Sultan of SWAT.
He was also a proponent of the police-state tactic of massive surveillance and spying. Not that he invented it. As a deputy chief under Chief Ed Davis, and later as chief of police, Gates inherited the LAPD’s notorious “Red Squad,” known as the Public Disorder Intelligence Division (PDID), which had a sordid history going back into the 1920’s, but he certainly expanded it dramatically.
I had my own experience with the PDID when I was an editor of the little alternative news weekly, the Los Angeles Vanguard, founded by myself and several other Los Angeles journalists in 1976, after the demise of the venerable Los Angeles Free Press. Our publication, which took on the issue of police brutality and especially the all-too-frequent shooting of unarmed citizens, very quickly became a special focus of the PDID. We learned, years after our publication had folded, that our volunteer staff had been infiltrated by a young PDID officer named Connie Milazzo, a woman just out of the Police Academy, who came to us posing as a journalist wannabe.
In a deposition taken by attorneys with the Southern California American Civil LIberties Union as part of a class action suit against the LAPD and the City of Los Angeles in the early 1980s, after Milazzo and other equally young Red Squad spies had been discovered infiltrating over 200 peaceful organizations in Los Angeles ranging from our newspaper to the local chapters of NOW, the Peace & Freedom Party, and even the office of City Councillor Zev Yaroslavsky, we learned that the PDID was gathering dossiers on literally thousands of local political activists, infiltrating and spying on protected political activities like peace demonstrations, anti-nuclear demonstrations and even political campaigns, and also engaging in provocateur activities, trying to encourage peaceful groups to cross the line into criminal actions.
We learned too that our paper was actually sabotaged by the PDID, which operated under Gates’s authority. We had, after about six months’ operation, hired a person at a considerable cost to sell advertising space in the paper. We learned from this person, only much later after the paper had to shut down, that she had been told by her boss, an advertising agency executive, to only pretend to try to sell ads. It turns out that the executive had a son who had been busted by the LAPD for drugs, and the police had extorted the father, saying if he prevented our paper from getting advertising, they’d get the charges dropped against his son.
Gates is hailed too, for being the first police chief to add helicopters to the police department’s arsenal. It was a logical move. The LAPD already was widely seen as essentially a military organization, so why not have an air force too? But in fact, the helicopters were mostly a huge waste of department money. They gave the department, and its chief, great bragging rights at tony Los Angeles parties and police conventions, but did little to reduce crime.
I remember how back then, when I lived on a hill across Alvarado Boulevard from Dodger Stadium in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles, when I would come home from the Vanguard office, how often a police helicopter would be secretly following my car. When I’d park and start walking up the steps towards my house, I’d suddenly be bathed in a light as bright as day, as the helicopter would turn on its searchlight. It was a clear attempt at intimidation and harassment, as were the helicopters that, during the day, often came to buzz over our office in the Crenshaw District, just to let us know they were watching.
Connie tried to get our sources. Her technique was simple. She would volunteer to stay in the office and answer the phone while the three or four editors went out to lunch. I kept all my files in those pre-computer days in a metal recipe box on index cards. Fortunately, I kept my best sources hidden by using false names and carefully rearranged phone numbers, so my inside sources in the LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department were never uncovered by Milazzo. But it wasn’t for lack of her trying, I’m sure.
The lawsuit brought against Gates and the PDID, settled out of court because the PDID didn’t want to have to disclose any more of its nefarious activities, which it turns out included selling much of the collected data on local activists to a right-wing organization called Western Goals that had links to the John Birch Society, ultimately cost the City of Los Angeles $1.8 million, of which I received $2,000.
So I guess I owe Chief Gates a small word of thanks. The money came at a point when my wife and I, by then living and working as freelancers in New York, were low on cash. But that check hardly compensates for his role in helping to undermine and destroy an award-winning but financially fragile investigative newspaper that was for the first time exposing the LAPD’s role in killing unarmed citizens through excessive use of force and an official, but secret, department policy of shoot-to-kill.
Gates’s obsession with violence and his policy of using the police in Los Angeles as an occupying army in poor minority communities ultimately led to his undoing. His defense of the officers filmed beating the unarmed and defenseless Rodney King, and his inept handling of the days of wide-spread rioting that followed the acquittal of those officers by an all-white jury, led to his being forced to resign as chief in 1992.
Chief Gates represented all that is wrong with police and law enforcement in America. Thanks to him, my little town of Upper Dublin, a mostly upper-middle-class exurb just north of Philadelphia where crime mostly consists of breaking and entering, or an occasional case of drunkenness or disorderly conduct, boasts a big gray SWAT panel truck, equipped with assault weapons and god knows what else that never gets used, but that gets shown off every year at an annual police and fire department show-and-tell day. And surely, his PDID, and the spying it engaged in, was a harbinger of and even pioneer for the almost universal surveillance state that we now live in, with cameras popping up everywhere, our electronic communications constantly monitored, and police acting like the gestapo, instead of the civil servants they are supposed to be.
Indeed, Gates profited handily off the trend towards increased surveillance that he helped encourage, moving from his disgraced resignation from the LAPD to a lucrative post as chief executive of Global ePoint, a maker of digital video surveillance systems.
I for one will not miss him.