AS the trial of four Los Angeles policemen on charges of beating Rodney King unfolds in neighboring Ventura county, Chief Daryl Gates can be found in his downtown office, relishing his temporary respite from the media hot seat.
The brutal clubbing of Mr. King by white police officers - captured in grisly detail Mar. 3, 1991 by an amateur video cameraman - re-ignited one of the most heated nationwide debates on police brutality since the civil rights era. Much of the acrimony that ensued was directed at the 13-year chief for alleged failure to set the moral and professional tone in his department that many experts say is paramount in curbing excessive force.
Vilified in the news media, Gates, a 43-year police veteran, maintains that no one incident should impugn the force or the chief. He produces a stack of letters supporting his efforts to "not allow the LAPD to become politicized." June ballot measures that seek to limit the chief's tenure and provide more outside control await voters.
The anniversary of the King beating has left Gates "saddened," he says, over the "unwarranted damage to my family and 8,000 very, very hard-working policemen [of the LAPD]." In an extensive, one-hour interview, Gates questioned the appropriateness of recommendations to remove him. But despite an investigation that he says calls for policies the department already embraces, Gates has redoubled efforts to "implement every single recommendation we have control over."
What has the American police community learned from the Rodney King episode?
"I am not certain what we've learned [or] what it is we were attempting to learn. We certainly did know beforehand that police officers are a product of the human environment. As a result, from time-to-time are going to make errors. Given the task they have and the complexities [of] decisions they have to make, it's surprising they haven't made more errors."
That sounds like "no progress."
"The LAPD has made tremendous strides in law enforcement [since] an almost identical situation when I came on the department (1950).
"Individuals were taken to jail and beaten, and I can remember the hew and cry.... They came up with all the standard answers - more training, awareness of the surrounding culture, working with diversity, be more sensitive to people, and install fail-safe devices [such as] more administrative audits and investigations [and] be tougher on discipline. Forty years later, we do all these things."
Several experts have posited that the incident helped underline the need for new solutions by reminding us how widespread the problem continues to be.
"That's nonsense. As long as I can remember we have had incidents of excessive force, ... and we have been dealing very effectively with that. Before the incident, those numbers were coming down.
In the last year there have been several advances in policing: videos cameras in police cars; new administrative mechanisms to oust officers with abusive records; community policing; the push for more civilian review boards.
"It would be nice if we videotaped every occasion so that you get a running picture of how police conduct themselves on a regular basis.
"People would have a different idea of what police officers have to put up with. But who's to say they won't step out of the range of video?
"As far as ferreting out those officers who are consistently causing problems, I don't know of a police department in the country that hasn't been doing that as long as I can remember. People forget there are job protections of all kinds, police unions, rights you can't trample on ... incidents that were reviewed and nothing came of them...."
What about civilian boards to oversee police departments?
"They are very expensive if you staff them properly [with] investigators, and tend to be very slow to take action; and when they do they are less decisive in dealing with discipline than police administrators are.
"They can become very political: How are you going to vote them in? Who's going to select them? What are their backgrounds and ability?"
Do you regard an independent police commission as an asset or liability?
"I like the commission form of government as long as it doesn't become politicized. If it operates properly, there is a selection of people who have no political interest, but rather the interest of the city at heart."
The Christopher Commission report (a six-month, independent investigation into the city's law enforcement procedures following the Rodney King incident) is being used as a primer for discussion in police departments across the land. What did you glean from that?
"That they should have given the police a period to comment on it before they made it public. If you look at the recommendations, so many of them we are already doing. Other conclusions show sloppiness or point the finger at situations the police did not create."
"They said we had not provided adequate training to our training officers. Everyone knew that. We were suddenly saddled with hiring 960 officers in two years [as demanded by] city council. We did our best. We knew they hadn't had sufficient seasoning in the field."
What recommendations in the report do you oppose?
"I oppose making the chief a political pawn in the position of being manipulated politically, as most chiefs in the US are. [Civil service protections that have existed in L.A.] have set the LAPD way out in front of every police department in the country. There hasn't been any mass corruption, and integrity is our hallmark. Do you want to change all that?"
It has been suggested several times that you step down in order to help the city and its police department move beyond the Rodney King episode, yet you say you will not go until June. Why do you continue to hold on?
"My feeling about accepting responsibility was to stay here and try desperately, as I have done, to take [the Christopher Commission report] and say okay, I don't like it but I will do my very best to see it is fully implemented and do my best to restore the pride that the men and women have in themselves and LAPD."