Daryl Gates was defiantly undiplomatic. The longtime Los Angeles police chief once told a Senate committee that “casual drug users should be taken out and shot.” On another occasion, he said that more blacks than whites died in police chokeholds because their arteries differed from those of “normal people.” But he stirred his greatest controversy with remarks about the riots that ravaged Los Angeles in 1992, after a jury acquitted four police officers of brutality charges in the videotaped beating of African-American motorist Rodney King. Gates called King “a no-good SOB parolee,” and his department’s conduct during four days of mayhem “beautiful.” Widespread public outrage over the riots, which caused some 55 deaths and more than $1 billion in property damage, eventually proved his downfall.

Gates, who died last week after a bout with cancer, wasn’t always a police booster. During his “hardscrabble childhood” in suburban Glendale, Calif., said the Los Angeles Times, his father, an alcoholic, scrapped frequently with the police. Gates said the experience led him to see cops as “just a plague on society.” His view changed in 1949, when he learned that he could earn $290 a month as a police trainee while continuing pre-law studies at the University of Southern California. The bright young trainee soon found himself driving “tough, reform-minded” Police Chief William Parker around Los Angeles. Gates methodically moved up the ranks, becoming chief himself in 1978.

Gates’ “tumultuous” 14-year tenure was marked by frequent clashes with the city’s black and Latino communities, said the Los Angeles Daily News. But he was also considered an innovator and a pioneer, introducing the concept of military-style SWAT teams to respond quickly to crises as well as the DARE anti-drug classroom program; both were later copied by police departments nationwide. His relations with other city leaders, always rocky, became untenable after the King riots. After Mayor Tom Bradley criticized Gates for refusing to call in the National Guard to help quell the disturbances, he took early retirement. He went on to work as a radio host and write an autobiography.

But Gates never stopped defending his department’s handling of the riots, suggesting the cops were the victims. “There were two beatings,” he said in 2002. “There was one of Rodney King, and then there was the beating of the Los Angeles Police Department. And that one lasted a whole year.”