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I WAS THERE: 'He Was Suggesting That Blacks Were Not Normal,' L.A. Doctor Recalls Bizarre Phone Call From Then LAPD Chief Daryl Gates

My name is Dr. Richard Allen Williams. I'm a cardiologist and I'm on the faculty at UCLA School of Medicine, where I've been for forty five years.

I want to take you back to the year 1982, when I received the call from L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates, which surprised me.

Chief Gates was a very forceful and aggressive police chief. He actually established what one might think of as a militarized police department. So on weekends in particular, he would send 500 or a thousand people into specific sites of L.A. and the police would simply descend upon these people who were out in the street at night and start mass arrests, bring them in and lock them up.

“Aggressive doesn't mean the use of force. Aggressive means that we move into crime situations and deal with them.”- Daryl Gates.

 I don't know where he got my number from. But in any event, he said, I'd like to discuss a very delicate medical manner with you.

Chief Gates asked me if I could verify the fact or according to him, the fact that African-Americans were very susceptible to chokeholds because they had an anatomical defect in their necks.

And so he was suggesting that blacks were not normal in regards to their neck anatomy and that therefore it was their fault that they were dying.

Not the fault of the police.

And he wanted to know if I would agree with him. And I told him “No, Chief Gates, I don't agree with that. I think that this is something that cannot defend.’

The real reason is that there were more chokeholds being applied to blacks over a period of a few months.

Sixteen men who were taken into police custody died from chokeholds, and twelve of those were African-American or black.

There was a good deal of controversy in the city about this at that time. Well, there actually were two chokeholds. There was one that was called the bar hold. And then there was the carotid chokehold, which reduced the blood flow to the brain and caused the individual to pass out and die.

And when these holes are applied properly, it is our feeling that they are not life-Threatening holes.

Ultimately, the L.A. Police Commission and decided to eliminate all chokeholds in the city of Los Angeles. And that's where it is today. In California, there's an assembly bill which is is pending right now. If that passes then and his sign, then the chokehold will no longer exist throughout California. But that's just one state. George Floyd died from a chokehold with a need to his neck from the police.

And there was also the case of Eric Garner in New York City in 2014 where the chokehold was applied.

We are able to see racism alive and up close, and this should propel us to do something definitive. And at this point, finally, to eradicate that, I think elimination of the chokehold is the first step in that process.

In this episode of "I WAS THERE," Los Angeles Cardiologist Dr. Richard Allen Williams recalls a disturbing phone call that ultimately contributed to a major change in policing in L.A. It was May 1982 when then Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates called Dr. Williams and asked him to validate a theory that Black men’s necks were anatomically different than whites. Gates had a “hunch” that Blacks were dying more frequently from chokeholds because their veins or arteries didn’t open up as fast as “normal people.”

Gates tracked down Dr. Richard Allen Williams after learning of his book "The Textbook of Black-Related Diseases." The call didn’t go well and ultimately led to dueling press conferences and a call for Gates’ resignation. The controversial remarks and ongoing concern surrounding chokeholds quickly pushed the Los Angeles Police Commission to ban one of the technique’s forms. Now there are calls to ban it on a Federal level.


About the Series

"I WAS THERE" is about telling a great story. This series of first-person accounts breaks current and historical events down to human scale, carefully taking the viewer behind some of Southern California’s biggest headlines.

Production team

Executive Producer: Karen Foshay 

Producers: Tori Edgar, Denise Chan & Michael Ray 

Photographers: Trevor Jackson, Karen Foshay

Editor/Graphics: Michael Ray, Andy Viner

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