Friday, May 07, 2004
When i was growing up, the LAPD represented the best of the best when it came to law enforcement. Now, it's image is probably something along the lines of "corrupt white men using their power to oppress brown people."
That formulation is a paraphrase of James Ellroy whose novels play on that theme like a nine year old plays a drum-- loudly, incessantly, without subtlety or reflection.
A decade of headlines seemed to confirm the image:
--- The OJ Simpson Trial
---The LA Riots
---Ramparts CRASH Scandal
---The shooting of an off-duty black police officer by a white cop.
Anyone who want to know the story beyond the headlines ought to read two book: Lou Cannon's Official Negligence and Randall Sullivan's LAbyrinth. They are eye-opening. It's a little like that old comedy bit, "everything you know, is wrong."
Far from being the corrupt department of Ellroy's nightmares, both writers agree that Chief Parker reformed it in the 1950s and made the LAPD an honest, efficient force that probably was the finest in the world by the 1960s. Parker was undoubtedly a prejudiced hard-ass with a drinking problem and a genius for PR. But as Lou Cannon writes, "while advancing through the ranks during the most violent and corrupt period in the department's history, Parker was never touched by any scandal."
Daryl Gates was chief when the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots shook the city and he received most of the blame for the LAPD's failures. But both writers agree that the these incidents were exploited by multiple players with their own agendas. Cannon notes, "mayor [Tom Bradley] had decided that the King incident had handed him an opportunity to oust a police chief he lacked the authority to fire, and the mayor's aides fed a flow of disparaging information about Gates to the media, some of it demonstrably false." One of those aids was Mark Fabiani who "was orchestrating the effort to "turn up the heat" on the chief and pressure him to resign." Inside the LAPD there were senior officers who hoped to succeed Gates and had no problem making the department look bad in order to clear the way. Lawyers like Johnny Cochran were happy to stir the pot because it lined their pockets.
The Ramparts "scandal" is an even more disturbing story. When authorities closed in on a dirty cop-- Rafael Perez-- he spun a tale of wide-spread corruption and abuse by the special anti-gang CRASH unit in Ramparts division.
The media and politicians had a field day with the lurid allegations. It was a perfect scandal- anti-LAPD, anti-Gates, tinged with racism, proof of deep, systemic corruption.
The only problem is that Perez made nearly all of it up out of whole cloth to cover his own criminality. As the New Yorker put it:
In creating and, to some degree, directing the course of the Rampart scandal, Rafael Perez may have overtly lied or withheld the whole truth, and he may have protected his friends and settled old scores by implicating his enemies. Few now believe that the wrongdoing was as widespread as Perez once suggested—of the seventy officers eventually implicated by Perez, five were fired by the department and eight more resigned. What has been verified in Perez's allegations is nowhere near as serious as the crimes that he himself confessed to.
Ramparts is just an example of the excesses that can grow out of the media's love for sensation and their anti-authority bias. The initial headlines promise more than later stories can confirm.
Beyond the interests of accurate history, there is an Iraqi connection. The stories coming out of the military prisons have the potential to be a Baghdad Ramparts. Anti-military reporters will have an interest in finding systemic abuses; the perpetrators have an interest in shifting the guilt to their superiors. Reporters want exclusives to big stories and therefore, have a bias against undercutting a source who will point the finger at high-ranking officers.
One more example of reader beware.