Probably no other police chief stood up for LAPD officers quite like Daryl Gates. That became clear the first time I saw him confront a scandal. It was 19 months before he became police chief and my first year on the police beat for the Valley News, which later became the Daily News.
I had just broken a story about an LAPD sex scandal that drew national attention. Several officers were under investigation for illicit sex with juveniles (teenaged girls). The girls were law enforcement explorer scouts in the LAPD's Hollywood Division.
The police chief at the time, politically astute Ed Davis, conveniently was out of town, leaving Gates to handle the ensuing press conference. Davis' habit, I soon learned, was to dump anything with a hint of scandal in the lap of his loyal assistant chief.
On that day in August of 1976, Daryl Gates glided out of his Parker Center office to face a pack of photographers and reporters demanding juicy details. What they got was a seasoned professional.
Gates was calm and restrained in the details he provided. He was neither defensive nor protective of the officers under investigation. I couldn't detect a trace of resentment in how Gates dealt with the messy task. He said the internal investigation could lead to both criminal and departmental charges. That was exactly how it turned out.
Throughout his 14 years as police chief, Gates confronted the endless disputes and periodic scandals head on. To his eventual detriment, he refused to adopt his predecessor's practice of taking the politically expedient way out, no matter how perilous or scandalous the issue was.
I ran into LAPD retaliation for my coverage of the explorer scandal, but Gates had nothing to do with that. During my 10 years of covering Gates and the LAPD, I caught the chief's wrath only when reporting on troubles facing members of his family, invariably over stories that ran on front page above the fold.
He was as protective of his family as he was of the cops who observed the rules and remained dedicated to serving the public. Gates could come down hard on officers who broke the rules, but he will be remembered for his unyielding loyalty to the LAPD's straitlaced rank and file.
At the chief's funeral on Tuesday, retired LAPD Deputy Chief Mike Hillmann related how much it bothered Gates whenever one of his officers was killed. "It broke his heart," Hillmann said, to hand the flag that covered each police officer's casket to a young widow at the graveside.
Instantly, my thoughts turned to a funeral nearly 25 years ago and the story surrounding it. Personally, nothing I've ever covered has affected me more. It was a shocking crime and a worthy test of Gates' commitment to his troops.
For Chief Gates, the murder of LAPD Detective Thomas C. Williams was different than any other. He was at the crime scene and had the solemn obligation during the graveside service to present the flag from Detective Williams' casket to his widow, Norma, his teenaged daughter, Susan, and his young son, Ryan.
Gates devoted a chapter of his autobiography, "Chief: My Life in the LAPD," to the case and the Williams family. This is how the murder is described on Page 258 of the book:
No officer in LAPD history had ever been killed like this: the stalked target of what appeared to be a painstakingly planned hit. Tom Williams had been assassinated.
In the aftermath of the killing, Gates placed the police department's highest priority on arresting and prosecuting the culprits. Gates also taped a message that was played at every police station roll call urging his officers to take extra precautions because of the Williams murder.
Detectives from the LAPD's Major Crimes unit worked the case around the clock until they cracked it.
For me, the incident tragically took the life of a fraternity brother. Tom Williams and I belonged to the same fraternity at Cal State Northridge. More than that, the circumstances were deeply troubling. Four months before his death, I talked to Tom about his last case. He even arranged for me to interview the key witness and victim of the original crime. My story appeared in the Daily News after the victim himself was shot in a plot to silence him. The victim-witness narrowly survived the hit.
What began as a garden variety street robbery of a theater manager escalated into an extremely violent, premeditated assault on L.A.'s justice system. As the case unfolded, a robbery defendant was transformed into a veritable urban terrorist.
Detective Williams was shot to death on Halloween of 1985 as he picked up 6-year-old Ryan from his church school in Canoga Park. The killer opened fire with a fully automatic assault weapon from a passing car as Williams and his son were about to enter the detective's camper truck. Nine rounds struck Williams before he could draw his revolver.
But just before he was hit, the detective yelled for Ryan to duck. Ryan immediately dropped down as the bullets whizzed by and struck a classroom wall. The boy escaped injury, but in the next instant his world fell apart. When he ran around to the driver's side of the camper, Ryan found his dad's lifeless body.
At 42, Tom Williams was a devoted family man and a straitlaced, by-the book detective. He had been on the department for 13 years.
He had just come to Ryan's school from the San Fernando Courthouse. It was the final day of testimony in the trial of the theater manager's robbery. Tom Williams had investigated the case and arrested the defendant.
Evidence presented in the subsequent murder case revealed that the defendant in the robbery, Daniel Steven Jenkins, had plotted to sabotage his robbery trial to avoid going to prison. After the theater manager survived the shooting and testified against Jenkins under heavy guard, Jenkins launched a plot to kill Williams, the detective on the case, in hopes of undermining the trial. There was also evidence that hit men dispatched by Jenkins had the Williams home under surveillance at one point.
The evidence presented by the prosecutors in the murder trial showed that the hit men Jenkins had hired failed to carry out the plot, so Jenkins himself followed Williams to his son's church school after the court session and killed the detective. Jenkins had been free on bail during the trial. He only had to post $13,000 bond to remain free.
The day after the Williams killing, however, was Jenkins' last day of freedom. The jury in the robbery trial convicted Jenkins and he was subsequently convicted of the Williams murder and the attempt to kill the theater manager. Jenkins is on California's death row pursuing an appeal. His primary henchman was sent to prison for life without the possibility of parole and a third man is serving 25 years to life for conspiracy to commit murder.
On pages 263-64 of Gates' book, the chief quotes what he said to Ryan at his dad's graveside.
Sadly, I took from the color guard the American flag that had been draped over Tom's coffin and walked over to Norma, Susan and Ryan. Kneeling, I handed the flag to Ryan. 'I give you this, Ryan...not in any way to replace what you've lost...It's symbolic of courage and bravery and the things that your father represents, and it represents what he believed in.
'Every once in a while, take this flag out and maybe unfurl it and take a good look at it. It's a way of remembering what your father stood for...'
'As time goes on, the memory of your dad is going to fade to some degree and you need every once in a while to pull this out and remind yourself what a wonderfully brave person he was, what he contributed. It's important that you do that.'
Gates said he also told Ryan that his father's last word to him - "duck!" - was meant to save Ryan's life.
Gates concluded by saying, "I have no idea if he heard a single word I said, or understood any of it," but the chief noticed a couple of tears sliding down Ryan's cheek.
Earlier this week, Ryan Williams, now 31 and a father himself, told me he generally remembers Chief Gates' words.
Ryan, his mother and sister all said they are forever grateful for everything that Gates did for them. "The chief's death is a huge loss to everybody, everybody in the LAPD family from the past and even now," said Norma Williams.
Her daughter, Susan, married her high school sweetheart and they have two children, a boy and a girl. Susan is about to begin a new career as a real estate broker. Both Susan and Ryan emphasized that Chief Gates was always kind and considerate to them in their time of great need.
Ryan said he came to regard the chief as a grandfather figure who was both protective and interested in his soccer games and other activities. Ryan turned seven a week after his father's death and many LAPD officers showed up at his party, trying to bring whatever happiness they could back into his life.
A group that Gates formed also was helpful to Norma and her kids in the months after Tom's death. The LAPD's Family Support Group was dedicated to helping families cope with the loss of police officer spouses and fathers.
After Tom's death, Gates found ways to offer new meaning to Norma's life. First, he took steps to make sure that Tom's final act -- saving Ryan from the bullets that took his own life - qualified him for the LAPD's highest award for bravery, the Medal of Valor. The award was presented posthumously, with Norma and Susan receiving the medal from Gates the year after Tom died.
Then Gates paved the way for Norma to become a victims rights activist. Driven by the killings of Tom and another LAPD officer, Daniel Pratt, Gates launched a crusade to ban the sales of assault weapons. Before he went to Washington to testify on the need for such a law, Gates arranged for Norma to testify before the California Legislature.
Another widow of a slain police officer and I accompanied Norma to Sacramento for her testimony. Her remarks were not only well received but proved to be influential in achieving the goal
In 1989, the nation's first assault weapons ban was enacted in California.
Gates did many things over an extended period of time to soften the impact of Tom's loss on his family.
In 1994, NBC aired a movie about Tom's life and death and the family's ordeal. It was called "In the Line of Duty: The Price of Vengeance." Norma served as technical adviser and I was a co-producer in conjunction with the production company that made the docudrama.
While Tom was alive, he and his best friend, Roger Rowe, made a pact to look after each other's family, depending on who died first. Roger says that Ryan's well-being was uppermost in Tom's mind.
Rowe has lived for many years on the East Coast but has kept in touch with Ryan and the family as best he could.
A Vietnam veteran, Roger delivered the eulogy at Tom's funeral in his Marine dress uniform. He retired from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel some years back.
In the 1960s, Tom, Roger and I were all fraternity brothers at Cal State Northridge (then known as San Fernando Valley State College). In September of 2008, Roger and I conducted a memorial tribute to Tom and other fraternity brothers of ours who had passed away. The occasion was the first reunion of our fraternity, Kappa Delta Psi.
Roger also expressed his regard for Gates. "I remember how gracious he was at Tom's funeral," Rowe said. "I was really moved by how much concern he showed for the family and for Tom's sacrifice."
Rowe said he thinks Gates would have made an excellent general, particularly with the Marines. "Chief Gates was a man of integrity who stuck up for his principles," he said. "He was like a modern-day general."
In the years since Tom's death, I've remained close to the Williams family and know how each has struggled to move forward in their lives. There have been many difficulties, especially for Ryan. But they've had vital support along the way. Daryl Gates was one of their most valued supporters.
His devotion to his cops and their families is an unshakable part of the Gates legacy.
Arnold Friedman is an L.A. writer who specializes in the criminal justice system and politics. His work has appeared in various publications and on websites, including Los Angeles magazine, the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine, Nieman Foundation for Journalism's watchdog website, National Law Journal and San Diego Union-Tribune.