Gates died at his Newport Beach home with his family at his side, according to a police statement.
Gates' brother said in February the former chief had bladder cancer that had spread to a bone near his hip.
A tart-tongued career cop with a short fuse and a penchant for making controversial statements, Gates was a flashpoint for controversy long before the riots that broke out after four white police officers were acquitted of most charges in the beating of black motorist Rodney King.
"He was a man of deep convictions," said former Police Chief William Bratton, who left the department last year. "He was very happy to stand up for them, whether you liked them or not. And he enjoyed being in the middle of the bull's-eye. He thrived on it."
Although often at odds with civil rights activists, the mayor and other political figures, Gates was well-liked by rank-and-file police officers. He was responsible for numerous police successes that came to be overlooked when he was forced into early retirement after the riots.
Gates was a "one-in-a-million human being," current Police Chief Charlie Beck said. "He inspired others to succeed and, in doing so, changed the landscape of law enforcement around the world."
He was credited with developing the policing plan that brought off the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics with not so much as a traffic jam. He also created the department's popular Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., program for youth.
As a member of the police department's command staff in 1972, he formed Los Angeles' first Special Weapons and Tactics Team or SWAT. He also shut down one of the department's intelligence units in 1983 after learning officers were spying on the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations.
"He was a man of courage and character who had a deep commitment to the rule of law, with a deep pride of the LAPD," said Paul Weber, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the police officers union. "Chief Gates was a cop's cop."
As early as 1982, Gates came under fire for saying more blacks died than whites during the use of carotid chokeholds because "the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people."
Forensic experts said there was no such difference between races and a black community leader said the only reason blacks died more frequently was because the chokehold was used on them more often.
Gates later apologized.
In 1991, when a policewoman was killed in the line of duty, Gates labeled her accused assailant as "an El Salvadoran drunk who doesn't belong here." He once told a congressional committee that drug users should be shot.
Gates' police career began to unravel with the 1991 beating of King, which was videotaped by a man in a nearby apartment after King was pulled over for speeding. Audiotapes of the officers making racist remarks about the incident were released and the videotape of the prolonged beating televised.
Gates criticized the officers' actions but dismissed them as an aberration. Critics said they represented a pattern of abuse directed at minorities allowed to flourish under Gates' watch.
Under pressure to resign, Gates announced his retirement in the months following the beating. He was just two months short of leaving when the officers were acquitted on April 29, 1992, a verdict that triggered one of the worst outbreaks of civil unrest in Los Angeles history.
Four days of rioting throughout the sprawling city left 55 people dead, more than 2,000 injured and property damage totaling $1 billion. Entire blocks of the city were reduced to cinders by fires.
Gates came under intense criticism from the mayor, fire chief and others who said officers were slow to respond. Then-Mayor Tom Bradley said Gates had "brought Los Angeles to the brink of disaster just to satisfy his own ego."
Gates shrugged off the criticism, calling his department's response to the riots "beautiful" and blaming underlings for what errors he did acknowledge. An investigative panel later faulted him for failing to properly prepare the department for such trouble.
Gates' place in history is still being debated.
"He's not a politician and the politicians got him," City Councilman Dennis Zine, a former LAPD motorcycle cop during Gates' tenure. "They blamed him for use of excessive force, then blamed him when he held back in the riots."
Gates cemented the LAPD's standing as the "most respected law enforcement in the United States" with a rigid adherence to classic law-and-order policing, Beck said.
But Bratton said though Gates cared deeply for policing and made significant contributions, he left a department that "had sort of lost its way, and for the next 10 years LA suffered as a result of that."
After retiring, Gates worked briefly as a radio talk-show host and later as a consultant for various companies.
He also wrote the memoir "Chief: My Life in the LAPD."
Years after his retirement, he was still responding to his critics.
"There were two beatings. 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," he told The Associated Press in 2002.
He called the rioters "hoodlums" and said they were out to loot and steal with little concern for King. He called King "a no-good S.O.B. parolee who has never been able to find himself ever since."
A month before he retired, Gates led his last Los Angeles Police Academy graduation ceremony. The crowd cheered him and a band played "Swinging Gates," a song written in his honor.
Gates' 43-year career with the LAPD began in 1949, not long after a two-year stint with the Navy during World War II.
A Glendale native and University of Southern California graduate, he was mentored by legendary Chief William Parker. He became chief in 1978.
Gates' personal life, like his career, was sometimes tumultuous. His marriage ended in divorce and his son struggled with drug abuse, suffering an overdose during the 1992 riots.
In addition to his brother, a retired LAPD captain, Gates is survived by two children.