The Rampart Scandal has been called the worst police corruption story in the history of Los Angeles, and altered a lot of people’s perceptions about the LAPD. The pop culture machine responded with a surge of films depicting Rampart from several angles, as well as a deep exploration via the TV show The Shield. In this episode I examine the cultural impact of the Rampart Scandal, analysing whether these films and TV shows were genuine examinations of these events, or attempts to trivialise, dismiss or cover up what happened.
In the 1990s, Los Angeles faced a lot of problems. In the 80s, the civil war in El Salvador, the violence in Nicaragua and the spillover in Guatemala and elsewhere drove a lot of central Americans to seek new homes. Many of them ended up in LA, which was undergoing a surge in the local drugs industry, alongside the well-known crack epidemic. A decade later, and the poorer parts of the city were dominated by street gangs, which were often well funded, organised and armed to the teeth.
Before we get into our specific topics, I want to highlight for you that this situation was largely a consequence of US foreign policy, the blowback from the CIA’s dark arts was blood on the streets of Los Angeles.
One of the answers the LAPD came up with was special teams, so-called CRASH units who targeted the gangs, got to know them, and tried to disrupt their operations and arrest them. They were first created in the late 70s but by the 1990s they were completely off the leash. Bear in mind this is more like being a secret agent than an everyday cop – these teams acted with little oversight, were granted a wide latitude in order to get results, and were more in the intelligence game than the policing game. But of course, few if any of them had any training in intelligence and black operations, so they largely had to make it up as they went along.
As you might imagine, things did not go well.
On the afternoon of March 18th, 1997, an undercover cop shot and killed a member of the Rampart Division’s CRASH team. The undercover was Frank Lyga, who was on a stakeout pending a drugs bust, when he was approached by a green jeep driven by Kevin Gaines. Gaines was throwing gang signs, threatened Lyga, chased him down the road and then pulled a gun on him. Lyga shot twice, killing Gaines.
Within days, Gaines’ family hired Jonny Cochrane to sue the city in a wrongful death lawsuit. Cochrane was looking for $25 million, but ended up with a $250,000 settlement. Lyga was ruled to have carried out the shooting within policy, but the investigation into Gaines revealed his involvement with Death Row Records, who were associated with the Bloods street gang. It seems that Gaines was known for riding round the hood, acting like a gangster, threatening people from inside his car.
A few months later, on November 6th, two armed men entered a branch of Bank of America and made off with two bags containing $722,000. The cash had been ordered by the manager, and had arrived only minutes before the robbery. After hanging around outside the bank for weeks, in full view of the employees, the investigators got the manager to crack. She gave up her boyfriend, David Mack, another member of the Rampart CRASH unit. While Mack was sentenced to fourteen years, he never revealed what happened to the money, and bragged to inmates that he would be a millionaire by the time he got out.
Investigators digging into the Gaines shooting found that Death Row often hired off-duty cops to act as security guards. Meanwhile, they heard from the LA County Jail that Mack was now sporting red colours and openly identifying as a member of the Bloods street gang.
In late March 1998, officers discovered that eight pounds – about a million dollars worth – of cocaine was missing from an evidence room. The Chief of Police set up a Task Force, which quickly honed in on Ray Perez, another Rampart CRASH unit member. Going back, they found another pound of cocaine had gone missing from the evidence lock-up, which had been seized by Lyga. They speculated that Perez might have been trying to set up Lyga, as revenge for Lyga shooting Gaines (Perez and Gaines were friends and worked together, along with Mack).
In August, Perez was arrested. He immediately asked, ‘Is this about the bank robbery?’ but later denied knowing anything about Mack robbing the bank, and didn’t implicate Mack in any way. Perez was charged and prosecuted for stealing at least some of the cocaine, but got a hung jury. Apparently, he charmed several of the women on the jury, one so much that she recused herself because she found him too attractive.
Facing a retrial, and the prospect of his girlfriend getting caught up in a fresh prosecution, Perez cut a deal. In exchange for a five year sentence he agreed to give up several fellow officers, two for bad shootings and three others in the CRASH unit who were up to no good. Over the following months he gave over 4000 pages of testimony, implicating over 70 cops and laying bare the CRASH culture of framing suspects, shooting and killing people at will, and acting like the city’s biggest, most powerful gang.
While over a hundred people had their convictions quashed, and the city ended up paying out over $125 million to settle lawsuits, only 24 cops faced consequences, mostly being fired or forced into retirement rather than criminal charges. Three were prosecuted and acquitted, and subsequently sued the city for $15 million in a civil rights lawsuit. They have since attempted to rebrand the Rampart Scandal as a non-event, based entirely on lies told by Ray Perez and another cop, Nino Durden, who were making things up to protect themselves.
According to this version of events, Durden and Perez were the only corrupt cops, and when they got caught they invented a wider conspiracy within the CRASH unit and across the LAPD in order to deflect attention and get reduced sentences. The rest of this report is about trying to make the police look like the victims of a fake scandal, overseen by the police chief Bernard Parks, who was trashing the police to serve his own political agenda. It even brings up the old canard that you can’t trust videos of police shootings or beatings because people turn on the video halfway through and only capture the police’s reactions to being attacked. This is exactly what critics of the Rodney King video said.
Fortunately, this rebranded narrative is demonstrably bullshit. Chief Parks actually helped cover up the Rampart scandal while he was head of Internal Affairs, looking into the Gaines shooting and the CRASH team’s connections to Death Row Records. He was also not re-hired at the end of his term, so any political agenda he had wasn’t served.
There is a culture within the police that echoes the same in the military, and other parts of the state, which says they can do no wrong. Any time the critics of police corruption and brutality voice their opinions, it’s because they’ve got an agenda, they’re anti-cop (or anti-military, or anti-government) rather than are responding to the actions of the state. Any time anyone is held responsible, they’re actually the victim of a nasty political stitch-up.
That being said, these three cops may have been wrongly prosecuted, but that’s peanuts compared to the many thousands of civilians who are locked up for no good reason. Supporters of the police have pointed to the fact that Perez took multiple polygraphs and failed them all, and he did contradict himself in his lengthy testimony to investigators. However, polygraphs are bullshit, there is a dispute over whether they were administered properly, and he did take two other polygraphs run by others and passed them.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t just Perez and Durden who were guilty of wrongdoing. Mack was convicted of the bank robbery. Another Rampart CRASH officer, Brian Hewitt, beat a gang member so badly that he vomited blood, leading to a lawsuit, Hewitt being suspended and investigated. He was ultimately convicted of distributing drugs and conspiring to commit murder.
Then, there’s Ruben Palomares, another Rampart CRASH officer who was busted by the DEA in June, 2001, trying to buy several kilos of cocaine. Perez had warned investigators back in 1999 about Palomares, but he was never charged in direct connection with the Rampart investigation. Instead, he was allowed to stay in the LAPD for another two years, during which time he formed a gang comprised of both cops and civilians, who carried out fake police raids so they could steal drugs and money. This totalled something like 700 pounds of marijuana and 50 kilos of cocaine, from early 1999 onwards.
Palomares claimed that Perez’s arrest, and stories of him blowing the whistle and implicating dozens of other cops, was part of the reason for his own crime spree. The LA Times, reporting on his sentencing years later, said:
Palomares said he turned to crime after getting hurt on the job and becoming disillusioned by the suspension and subsequent firing of officers implicated in the Rampart police corruption scandal. He also had money troubles.
I have some scepticism about this story, for a few reasons. The timeline of Palomares and his gang’s robberies begins in January 1999, before Perez had even finished his confessions and admissions to the Rampart task force investigators. For another, someone doesn’t just break bad and suddenly form a gang that steals police cars and uses them to rob drug dealers, beating up anyone who stands in their way. I imagine the general climate of corruption contributed to his cynicism and disillusionment but I’m sure he was dirty long before Perez started singing like a canary.
Why Did the Rampart Scandal Happen?
One of the biggest questions is why and how something like this could happen. We’re talking about a bunch of cops acting like mobsters – dealing drugs, robbing banks, robbing drug dealers and then selling the drugs, planting evidence, shooting people and then framing them to look guilty, like they fired first, and many other crimes besides. How does an anti-gang, anti-drugs cop like Perez end up taking pictures of himself in the Bloods’ colours, doing gang signs to camera?
There are the reasons we’ve already looked at – the city was awash with gangs, drugs and money, so is it any surprise? Then there’s the simple fact that if you have thousands of cops, hundreds of them are liable to be sociopathic or narcissistic or some kind of dominating control freak, power trip type or otherwise.
It would be easy to play the race card, except that most of the major figures in the Rampart scandal were black. Perez was from Puerto Rico, had served in the Marine Corps before getting into the LAPD, there wasn’t much in his background to suggest he and Durden would go on to shoot Javier Ovando in the back, paralysing him, and then frame him for assaulting them. Certainly, there is no obvious racial dimension to this, unlike the Mark Fuhrman case, for example.
Perez himself explained that there was a code of silence whereby the cops all protected each other, and it was understood that fabricating evidence and lying on the witness stand was acceptable. He said the CRASH team’s motto was ‘We intimidate those who intimidate others’, and there was very much an ‘us vs them’ ‘ends justify the means’ culture, not just within the CRASH units. He said that awards were given out for shootings – a red one if the target was injured, a black one if they died. The Rampart CRASH team had their own code and symbols, a skull with the ‘dead man’s hand’, and this was all either tolerated or actively encouraged by higher-ups.
Why? Because police statistics and the war on drugs, to a large extent. You need to show your higher ups on the city council and in the mayor’s office that you’re ‘making a dent’ and ‘sending a message’ in the battle against illegal drugs, you need people out there making arrests. So what if they also set up their own gang on the side who carry out over 40 major robberies in a little over 18 months, only to take the drugs they stole and sell them anyway, right?
For further answers on why the Rampart scandal happened, we can turn to a documentary that’s part of the bonus content for The Shield, a TV show we’ll get into in detail later in this episode. The Shield was inspired by what happened at Rampart, and the documentary offers a lot of perspective on why it happened.
This is a prime example of where law enforcement crosses over into social control, which is a much broader aim. So it is perhaps unsurprising that cops systemically overstepped the boundaries of what they are and are not allowed to do, and that this then became habitual, characteristic corruption. If the mission oversteps, then the people carrying out that mission will overstep.
On top of that there was little, if any, oversight, and higher-ups were scuttling investigations because they were worried about how far things had gone, and what they might find. Then there’s the general institutional culture of not snitching, not talking out of turn. That this was maintained even when cops were working side-by-side with gangsters, and acting like gangsters themselves, shows that this conspiracy of silence is not about upholding the law. It’s about self-protection and self-preservation.
For decades, the LAPD has leveraged the power of the entertainment business to burnish their public image. Dragnet and Adam-12 not only portrayed the department as upholding the law across the city, it showed them policing their own. The notion of systemic corruption or institutional criminality was simply not considered possible, and the occasional bad eggs were identified and dealt with.
Both shows worked closely with the real life LAPD, to help refashion public opinion and boost recruitment.
The 1990s, the arrival of camcorders leading to the Rodney King tape, then through the OJ Simpson fiasco and on into the Rampart scandal fundamentally changed public perceptions about the LAPD. Or, alternatively, made public long-held animosity towards and suspicion regarding the LAPD, depending on exactly whose perceptions we’re talking about. The Rampart scandal was labelled the worst in LA’s history, even the worst in US history. As the Times put it:
The Los Angeles Police Department’s expanding corruption scandal is the worst to strike the force since the 1930s–an era when mayors were crooks and L.A. cops were bagmen and bombers.
What is especially interesting about Rampart is that pop culture responded both widely, and almost immediately. Ruben Palomares wasn’t arrested until the summer of 2001, but Training Day came out just weeks later. This was all still unfolding as the movie, TV and video game industries were reacting to it. Then we got The Shield, Crash, Rampart, GTA San Andreas, all before the story had even runs its course. So we’re going to look at all these productions, in greater or lesser detail, and assess whether the cultural impact of the Rampart scandal has evolved over time, and if so, how.
We should note that the late 80s and early 90s did see a string of Iran-Contra themed movies, several of which include corrupt LAPD cops involved with drugs gangs. The dam was already broken by the time Rampart came along, but the flood of entertainment culture in some way referencing the scandal is unusual for what’s effectively a local police department issue. But that local police department happens to be in the city where the world’s most influential entertainment industry is based, hence the prominent cultural reaction.
Let’s take the films in chronological order and then circle back and look at The Shield, because that ran for several seasons throughout the period where most of the films were made. That means we’ll start with Training Day, the 2001 thriller starring Denzel Washington as Ray Perez, sorry, I mean Alonzo Harris. He just happens to have a license plate with Perez’s initials and year of birth on it, and Denzel studied Perez to adopt some of his mannerisms and speech patterns. But of course, any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely bullshit.
Denzel plays a corrupt LAPD cop who works drugs and gangs, and the story follows a rookie detective’s first day on the job working alongside this madman. The rookie gets drawn in by Denzel’s charm and authoritative nature, and we see them stealing drugs and money, killing an ex-cop turned drug dealer and staging the scene to make it look legitimate, as well as Denzel’s relationships with local mafia – though rather than being a black street gang and a record label, it’s the Russian mob. In the end, the rookie helps take down the corrupt cop.
It’s quite an entertaining film, though it loses its way in the third act, like most movies. The need for some kind of happy ending resolution means that the story loses its momentum as the rookie, who is far less interesting than Alonzo, becomes the hero. It’s basically the same plot as in The Recruit, the apprentice realising the master is corrupt and overcoming them, but whereas in that film there are extra dramatic elements to help keep the audience guessing until the final scenes, in Training Day it’s fairly obvious where it is headed.
I also feel that having your climax be the death of your most interesting character – even if that character is immoral – is problematic from both a storytelling and a moral point of view. It’s simply too convenient to have your likeable villain or anti-hero gunned down, as though karma intervened to take him off the board. It turns the exploration of the dark side of human nature into something voyeuristic – isn’t it fascinating to watch this evil man, but now he’s dead and we don’t have to worry about him anymore.
Morally speaking, it also reassures the audience that bad people get their comeuppance, when they often don’t, especially when they work for the government. It says that the police system works, and that bad apples will be rooted out and dealt with appropriately. Which is total balderdash.
The other objection I have is that the overall message is that there are corrupt cops, but don’t worry, they’ll get into bed with some gangsters and wind up dead at the hands of a more powerful gun. When it’s precisely the ‘we just need a bigger gun’ approach to social problems that caused this in the first place. The movie doubles down on the very thing that it purports to criticise. Likewise, Denzel got a lot of black cred for playing a corrupt cop, but the film is ultimately pro-police and pro-establishment, as is most of his career.
The only major organisation credited on the movie is the Entertainment Industry Development Corporation, though there were several police consultants – Jon Kasper, Michael Patterson, Paul Lozada, Brian Parr, Elmore Britt and Michael Alexander. Presumably, they needed these technical advisors to make sure that in the scene where Denzel forces the rookie to smoke marijuana laced with PCP that he did so according to the correct protocols.
To be sure, I do not know whether these men were working for the LAPD at the time Training Day was made, I have not been able to find out who most of them are, though Lozada is former SFPD. But why would a movie about a corrupt cop doing his own thing on the street need police consultants? They didn’t need to stage some big raid in an accurate way, no one is in uniform, there’s nothing technical for them to consult on.
Thus, I’m left wondering whether Training Day is a limited hangout of a movie, and whether these consultants were from the LAPD. It might seem like a stretch given that the movie came out while the Rampart scandal was still unfolding, so maybe it’s just a film that hired a bunch of ex-cops for no apparent reason and then chickened out on its ending. They also hired a couple of former gang members, including Cle Sloan, a former member of the Los Angeles Bloods, the same gang that several Rampart CRASH cops belonged to, or acted like they belonged to.
Thus, it’s obvious that Training Day was based on the Rampart scandal, Alonzo is based on Ray Perez, and the film-makers were well aware of the story they were telling. When you keep in mind that the script was written by Navy veteran David Ayer, who also made the horribly misleading U-571 with the help of the US military, and the movie was directed by Antoine Fuqua who has made several films with the Pentagon, the notion that this is a subversive or challenging film starts to dissipate.
Before we move forward I must admit I have never seen all of the 2017 spin-off TV show also called Training Day. I watched the first episode or two, solely because it was one of the last performances by Bill Paxton, but it never chimed with me so I cannot offer much of an opinion on it.
Crash, Cellular and GTA: San Andreas
2004 was a curious year for Rampart-themed culture, in that we got Crash, a movie which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Cellular, a low-rent thriller, and GTA San Andreas.
Cellular is not a very good movie, partly because it stars Jason Statham as that guy Jason Statham always plays, but the rest of the cast includes Noah Emmerich, William H Macy, Chris Evans and Kim Basinger. They’re all somewhat wasted on simplistic, one-note characters, but the plot revolves around Kim being kidnapped by a group of dirty cops because her husband has a tape of them robbing, torturing and murdering two drug dealers, Rampart-style.
Exactly how this became the plot is not clear – the project started out when the writer of Phone Booth wanted to do another story about a ‘narcissistically obsessed society’ where everyone is addicted to mobile phones. It was more of an action thriller where a husband and wife are kidnapped by bank robbers, but in development became more of a sitcom thriller with this curious Rampart element thrown in. The DVD for the movie includes among the bonus features a short documentary on Rampart, so the film-makers made a conscious, intentional decision to incorporate this material, but I honestly have no idea why.
Were they trying to trivialise the Rampart story by recontextualising it within the confines of a fairly dumb, predictable comedy? Or were they trying to ground a superficially light movie with some serious, real-world context? I can’t tell. Curiously, the director David Ellis also directed Lethal Weapon, with its brief references to the Phoenix program and Iran-Contra plot, and Snakes on a Plane. The unofficial sequel to Snakes on a Plane, Snake Outta Compton, is in part a pastiche of Training Day.
Moving on to Crash, which won three Oscars including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, we’re presented with another curiosity. The movie clearly takes its name from the CRASH units, and the first draft was written in 2001, in the midst of the scandal. But it’s more a meditation on race and race relations than an exploration of Rampart or the CRASH teams.
The writer/director Paul Haggis said his film wasn’t just a criticism of racists, but also a dismissal of the liberal idea that America was becoming a post-racial society. I do like how the film depicts racial animus as being fairly universal, anyone is capable of being racist or subject to racism, though this isn’t equal, it becomes clear that race+class is the major determining dynamic of the events in the various plotlines.
People have taken a few slaps at this movie for supposedly saying ‘we’re all racist, and wouldn’t it be better if we all just learned to get along?’. It’s debatable whether this is even the message of the film, but even if it is – aside from being a little trite, what’s actually wrong with that message? It’s only a two hour film, not a 70,000 word book or a thirty-episode TV series. Certainly, it isn’t the best film ever made but it does broach some uncomfortable truths in a fairly engaging way that manages to overlap and interweave different plotlines in a plausible way. There’s nothing exaggerated or fantastical about it, in many respects it’s an accurate depiction of life in Los Angeles.
Where things get all Rampart is when a white cop shoots a black cop during a road rage incident – just like the Gaines-Lyga incident. Don Cheadle plays a detective tasked with looking into what happened, and they discover the dead cop had hundreds of thousands of dollars in the back of the car, which wasn’t even his. The implication is that he was involved in the drug trade. However, when Don’s called to Internal Affairs to make a decision about what to do with the shooter, the whole thing takes a turn.
Instead of looking into the corruption, the decision is to make out that the shooter was a racist cop and pin the whole thing on him, which is likely not true. This is defended with some crap about not wanting to ruin the reputation of a dead black cop, because young black kids need positive role models and so on.
I have split opinions on this handling of the Gaines-Lyga shooting and the Rampart question more broadly. You could say it’s wrong to reduce the issue to one of race, because it’s about a lot more than that, but I’m not sure that’s what Crash does. If anything, it suggests that the reason it took so long for Rampart to be exposed is because of politics, including race politics, and the PR around the police department. Again, that’s not the only set of factors, but it was an influence.
I also think it goes a bit further than the depiction in Training Day, where it’s mostly about Alonzo, though there are some other corrupt cops he works with. The sense of institutional cover-up is missing from the narrative, whereas in Crash it is central to the film’s exploration of Rampart. There isn’t much sense of the psychology within the police department, but the political manoeuvrings are there.
To round off our look at 2004 we’ve got the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which begins in Los Angeles before moving on to encompass San Francisco and Las Vegas. The setup is that you play as Carl, a guy coming home to LA after years on the other side of the country, but when he lands he is picked up by the local CRASH unit, one of whom is played by Samuel L Jackson. They steal his money, threaten him, and then start using him for various jobs including stealing from drug dealers and killing people.
The game is fairly anti-drugs, which is ironic for a game where you can kill people, quickly escape the police and face no consequences. But it is also a very down to earth depiction of how the Rampart cops behaved, and in the end you get to hunt them down and kill them, so it’s a nice bit of revenge fantasy.
The writers of the game clearly knew their stuff – the cops even use the CRASH motto ‘intimidate those who intimidate others’, and Sam Jackson’s character looks a bit like Ray Perez. There’s even an ongoing war between two gangsta rappers that you get involved in, though it’s unclear if this is a reference to the lawsuit claiming that Mack, Durden and Perez murdered Notorious BIG.
It’s difficult to compare a game to a movie because you’re actively playing one but not the other, and because the violence in the GTA games is far beyond what you can do in a movie, and for other reasons. So I’ll simply say this: it’s a great game, one of the best free-roaming adventures I’ve played, and it’s very anti-police, both in the central storyline and in the general gameplay. Essentially, the police are there to be evaded or killed, depending on how much trouble they’re causing you. They really should make a Grand Theft Auto TV series.
Street Kings, Faster and Rampart
Having graduated from writing Training Day, David Ayer went on to direct Street Kings, from 2008. He also made End of Watch, another movie about LAPD corruption. Early drafts for Street Kings were written by James Ellroy and he is credited, alongside Kurt Wimmer, who has written multiple CIA-supported movies.
Street Kings is very formulaic and quite dull – trying to make up for a predictable and weak script by splattering star names all over itself. Keanu Reeves, Chris Evans, Hugh Laurie, Forrest Whitaker, Common and Naomi Harris all appear in this one.
Many of the Rampart scandal memes find their way into the script – Keanu’s character kills two gangsters then stages the scene to make them look justified. His ex-partner is reporting corruption to internal affairs, so Keanu tries to stop him but the ex-partner is killed by two gangsters first. Planting evidence, stealing drugs from the evidence locker, a cop killing undercovers without realising who they were, many of the story elements from Rampart feature in Street Kings.
But the plot is convoluted and confused, and the only answer to these problems seems to be that Keanu kills all the corrupt cops, as well as a few gangsters along the way. It’s very much a story of one man committing violence in the name of right and truth and justice, even though he is a liar, a drunk and a murderer. While it’s formally categorised as a crime thriller, it’s more of a Western set inside the Rampart scandal.
Faster, from 2010, is also quite formulaic and rather dull, but at least has plenty of The Rock killing people and smashing stuff up. The first death comes in the eighth minute, and it continues on like the low-rent Tarantino rip-off it surely is. Essentially, The Rock plays a guy who has just got out of prison and is on a revenge tear against all the people who’ve screwed him over. Billy Bob Thornton plays a corrupt cop who is pursuing The Rock.
You might think with that premise and those two leads that this would be a good movie, but it is not. One of the problems of an investigative pursuit thriller is that the two leads rarely appear in the same scene, they don’t get to interact much. So what’s the point in casting two big names, except to make it seem like your movie might be good?
It’s not like in Fracture, where there’s plenty of back and forth, cat and mouse, bait and switch stuff between Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling, now playing Ken in the Barbie movie. There’s barely a scene in Faster where both Billy Bob and The Rock are on screen at the same time. There’s an extended backstory complete with flashbacks, but the whole thing is being relayed to Billy Bob by his partner. The least they could have done is have the killer call the detective and explain his motives, intercut with flashbacks. But this film isn’t clever enough to do things like that.
The only reference to Rampart is when it is revealed that Billy Bob was part of a CRASH team, and while this provides a little authentic background that perhaps explains his character’s corruption, this is a by the books guy with gun hunted by another guy with gun and a badge story.
2011’s Rampart, by contrast, is set in the immediate aftermath of the unfolding scandal. Starring Woody Harrelson as a corrupt cop coming to terms with the world he has helped create, we also have Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Steve Buscemi, Ice Cube and others filling out the cast.
In most respects, this is an intense character study of a corrupt cop, set at the time of the Rampart scandal. We get to meet officer Harrelson’s family, colleagues, antagonists – he’s in every scene. So enjoying this film hinges almost entirely on whether you like Woody Harrelson and like this performance from him. Unlike the anti-heroes in some of these films, Woody is more just a failed human being – not stupid, but incapable of resisting temptations and the worst aspects of his nature. He drinks, he philanders, he beats suspects, he loses his temper easily.
One day he’s driving in his patrol car when another car hits him. The driver flees, so Woody chases and beats the hell out of him. This is captured by a bystander, leading to an investigation and criticism of the police department. This sparks off the chain of events that brings him down, which includes Woody stealing stolen money, extorting a pharmacist for prescription drugs, blackmailing people and allowing people to die.
The problem is that while the film refers to the Rampart scandal, it focuses almost exclusively on Woody’s character, and even suggests he’s being unfairly targeted in response to the beating because of that scandal. In a scene with the Assistant DA, she lists all the problems caused by Rampart including false complaints and criminals being let out on the streets.
As such, this film – which takes its name from the scandal – if anything argues it would have been better if all these police abuses didn’t come to light. As though releasing people from prison – some of them gang members – because they were set up is the wrong thing to do. As though paying out compensation to people who were shot, beaten, paralysed, had their lives ruined by the police is the wrong thing to do. As though firing and prosecuting cops for their crimes is the wrong thing to do.
It’s part of the police culture, and the military culture, to act like they can do no wrong, because it’s a difficult job. But we’re not talking about people bending the rules to get someone they know is guilty, we’re talking about straight up framing people, staging scenes to turn murders into legitimate shootings, stealing money and drugs from drug dealers – none of these can be excused by the ‘it’s a difficult job’ bullshit. But that’s all we hear, that the overwhelming majority of cops are good cops, no matter how many of them turn out to be rapists, racists, murderers, thieves, liars, bullies, abusers. All those cops are just the handful of bad cops, while the remainder are all good cops until proven otherwise.
And then, when it’s proven otherwise, they’ll complain about how the body cam footage doesn’t show exactly what happened, because apparently an accused person’s memory is more reliable and trustworthy than video tape. And yet, when they’re prosecuting someone, video tape is the exact sort of indisputable evidence they rely upon.
As such, Rampart offers more of a reflection on the scandal than either Street Kings or Faster, but leaves us with a quandary. Woody’s character is neither a hero nor an anti-hero, he’s fairly pathetic and while his actions are not excused, they aren’t especially condemned either. Inasmuch as the movie explores the post-Rampart climate, both institutionally and psychologically, much like in Crash we see that the DA and the city politicians are just as corrupt, political and self-serving as the police. So who fixes anything? Who makes anything better?
My point being that there’s a tendency in American society, and elsewhere but it’s particularly acute in the States, towards childish blame-shifting. The police prove to be corrupt, but since the people disciplining and taking action against them are also corrupt, the fact the police are corrupt somehow doesn’t matter. This is then used by the police as a justification for their hostility towards oversight, accountability, disciplinary processes, the way they play the victim whenever anyone stands up to them.
But if we apply the same logic to the police themselves that the police apply to oversight committees and so forth, then why have the police at all? Why not abolish them? If corruption is endemic no matter what we do, why institutionalise that corruption in a policing and criminal justice system? If you’re a cynic then you shouldn’t be excusing police brutality and criminality, you should be advocating for the abolition of the police.
Dirty, Direct Action and LAPD: To Protect and to Serve
The general arc across these movies (over time) is that initial forays into depicting Rampart were a little crude, but they became more sophisticated before then reforming the scandal into something to either exploit through character backstory or to make excuses for a narrative to happen. These later films aren’t really about Rampart, even the film called Rampart is mostly just about one cop, not a corrupt team of cops. So are they just copaganda with a limited hangout twist?
I did manage to find a copy of the other 2001 movie about the Rampart Scandal, the clunkily-titled LAPD: To Protect and to Serve. It has an impressive cast that includes Michael Madsen and Dennis Hopper, but hardly anyone has seen it – on Rotten Tomatoes it has no critic reviews at all, and an 8% audience rating.
Now, it is a badly written and badly made TV film, more like a straight to video 1980s action movie than a serious crime drama. With the benefit of hindsight it seems like it’s a deliberate pastiche, hence the silly title and hyperbolic tone of almost everything that happens.
It is by some distance the funniest of these films, because it’s so ridiculous. In only the third scene the cops go to a house party, are dancing with topless women, there’s cocaine and other drugs, and they’re spending most of their time stood around bragging about shooting people. I have no idea whether this is homage to old school cops or a mockery of them, but I think it’s the latter.
What really marks the film out is that the corrupt cops are brazen, and there’s more than just one or two of them. While this seems to be intentionally exaggerated, it actually comes across as much more realistic than the idealised fantasies in Dragnet, The Rookie, Law and Order. So this is either a really clever film, in that it’s a subversive parody of those sort of stories, taking the same exaggerations and reversing them, or it’s a really dumb movie that has no idea what it is or what it’s trying to be. And it’s really difficult to judge – just as you start to think this is a witty send-up, they throw in an over-the-top sex scene that isn’t at all sexy.
But it is definitely inspired by the Rampart scandal, Michael Madsen has illegal guns and bags of cocaine in his desk drawer at work, takes murder for hire contracts, and hangs out with gangsters. Amusingly, all the corrupt cops wear their uniforms all the time, even while committing serious crimes. Is this a problem of a tiny wardrobe budget, or a deliberate visual joke?
Another silly and not particularly good movie based on Rampart is Direct Action, from 2004, starring Dolph Lungren. Set inside the Direct Action Unit, an obvious stand-in for the CRASH units, it’s about a veteran cop who is fleeing for his life after dropping a dime to the feds and telling them all about LAPD corruption. His fellow cops are hunting him, and he has just one day left to prove his accusations are true, and escape with his life.
Much like in LAPD: To Protect and to Serve there is actually some kind of exploration of the cover-up culture, including killing or intimidating witnesses, within the CRASH units and the police more broadly. Both are amusing action films that look and sound quite, quite daft but they get deeper into the institutional culture that encouraged and enabled the Rampart corruption than Training Day or Rampart or any of the higher-budget, supposedly higher-class productions on this subject.
Alongside being a solid, if rudimentary, pursuit thriller Direct Action offers some kind of answer as to why and how this happened. The pressure on the ‘good cops’ to not blow the whistle, the need to maintain a clean public image, the politics that exist within all hierarchies.
By contrast, possibly the worst of all the Rampart scandal movies is Dirty, from 2005. Cuba Gooding Jr does his best impersonation of Denzel Washington in Training Day but the story is weak. The characterisation is overly dependent on voice overs, and people just saying what they feel rather than showing it through their actions.
One thing I did like about it – in keeping with these other mid-2000s films – in that it isn’t just one or two corrupt cops, it’s the entire culture and mentality of the anti-gang units. The Captain of the unit is just as corrupt as Cuba Gooding Washington, and encourages a no holds barred attitude from his cops.
Again, it’s a story of one cop standing up against corruption, though that’s largely because he’s suffering from PTSD due to his involvement in a murder. There are some interesting, and relatively accurate, psychological elements but the rest of the film is all stuff we’ve seen before. And I’m not just saying that because I devoted a week of my time to watching all these movies – in essence, it’s a replay of Training Day with a broader view but without the insane charm of Denzel’s central performance.
The Shield ran for seven seasons from 2002 to 2008 and in my opinion is rivalled only by The Wire when it comes to cop shows. As creator Shawn Ryan said, the whole thing was inspired by Rampart – so much so that it was called Rampart for a while before the LAPD objected and the show was renamed The Shield. He was trying to explore and explain how something like this happens, what drives the people involved to do the things they did. And I don’t think he had anything close to a complete answer to those questions when he started writing it, I think he figured a lot of stuff out as he went along.
Essentially, The Shield tells the story of a micro-precinct in Farmington – a fictional Los Angeles district that bears some curious similarities to Rampart. The precinct is run by Captain David Aceveda, who has political ambitions, and at the centre of the drama is the Strike team – obviously based on the CRASH teams. The team is headed by Vic Mackey – name obviously based on David Mack, who robbed the bank – played wonderfully by Michael Chiklis.
We see Vic and his team get up to all sorts of trouble, planting evidence, using drop guns to stage shooting scenes to make them look legitimate, stealing money and drugs, colluding with various gangs and gang leaders, even getting involved with senior figures at a record label which is a front for a gang. In the very first episode, Vic murders another cop after finding out he’s working undercover to investigate and expose what Mackey and his team are doing – the show doesn’t shy away, whatsoever, from the raw brutality of the Rampart CRASH scandal. At one point the team even rob the Armenian mob’s money laundering operation, making off with millions in cash – though this then puts both the Armenians and others on their tail.
But the show tells a wider story about policing in Los Angeles, which is very broad-minded. For example, there’s a storyline about a rapist turned serial killer who is tracked, and eventually caught, by one of the senior detectives. The twist is that his wife had no idea, she refuses to believe he is guilty, but once he is arrested and exposed for what he is she faces a backlash. Threatening calls, people dumping rubbish on her front lawn, being suspended from work – the exact sort of reactions people have to this kind of revelation. She doesn’t know how to deal with it, so she asks the detective, but he simply isn’t qualified to offer any useful advice.
Along similar lines, Captain Aceveda is sexually assaulted by a gang member, he is orally raped, but this is partly in response to Mackey choking the gsng member with a bong in a prior scene. We get to see Aceveda go through the various responses and stages of PTSD that people who go through this sort of violence usually experience. Crucially, his wife is pretty unsympathetic, which I think is partly a commentary on how men who suffer sexual violence generally get worse responses than women, or less supportive responses. Regardless, it’s the show’s willingness to plumb emotional depths and darkness, but in a grounded and sensitive way, that sets it apart. Most people simply wouldn’t consider these possibilities, but The Shield explores them in a careful way that ripples out over time.
Where I think The Shield really excels, beyond being a near-perfect action suspense story with some touching and clever emotional stakes, is in the institutional politics. When we’re introduced to them, Mackey and Aceveda are at war, but gradually the Captain realises he can use Vic to help his own ambitions, and they develop a completely untrusting but mutually beneficial relationship. Aceveda even starts helping cover up some of Vic’s serious misdeeds, all while suspecting him of murdering the undercover officer (among other people).
The problem is that Mackey and his team are very effective, because the reality is that the further you cross over the line, the greater the advantage you gain. The Shield doesn’t shy away from this – that if you’re sending cops up against criminal gangs it isn’t that surprising when they start acting like gangsters in order to gain an edge.
Vic consistently tells the lie that their reputation is all smoke, that they want the bad guys to be scared of them because it’s an effective deterrent – the logic of ‘we intimidate those who intimidate others’. He tells this to a journalist, to a senior cop who gets done for corruption so he wears a wire to try to catch Mackey, to others as well. But the reality is that Vic is the most dangerous gangster in Farmington.
One nice moment is in the midst of season two, when Vic and the gang are gearing up to rip off the Armenian money laundering operation. The show includes a flashback episode, showing how Vic got the job as head of the strike team, and how quickly they turned to dirty tricks because they’re under pressure to get results.
However, it isn’t just about responding to the institutional politics of the police department and the demands of the War on Drugs, it’s also about building their reputation on the street. By getting quick results, often by bending or breaking the rules, their role as agents of intimidation is enhanced. This is a principle of insurgency and counter-insurgency, that successful operations have a major psychological effect not just on your own side, but on the other side too.
This is not to alleviate individual culpability for their actions, but to show how Rampart was the inevitable response to dynamics that have played out in a similar way thousands of times. To blame this all on dirty cops, or good cops who went bad, or the pressures and demands of the job is a deflection. The reality is that the spillover from the CIA’s dirty wars in the 1980s created a power dynamic on the streets of LA that, predictably, resulted in the government forces – the police – trying to re-establish their authority.
The Big Picture: Hollywood and the Rampart Scandal
Perhaps the overriding question I found myself asking while watching these films is the extent to which they are cathartic ‘crime doesn’t pay’ narratives, appended with ‘even if you’re a cop’. This theme runs throughout the American crime genre going back to at least the 30s, when the FBI were first getting set up in Hollywood and the MPAA were issuing special guidelines on the depiction of crime.
One of the first projects the FBI got involved with was a series of short films titled Crime Doesn’t Pay, though they ended up pulling out and the films were made with private detectives as the major characters. Nonetheless, the overall values and vibe the FBI insisted on was retained in the films. The first movie to feature J Edgar Hoover was 1936’s You Can’t Get Away With It, which is all about how amazing the FBI are at solving crimes with the latest fingerprint technologies, and so on.
In 1938 the MPAA issued new regulations on how crime and criminals could be portrayed in movies. Among these rules were that you could not show law enforcement – whether police, FBI, private security guards or otherwise – being killed at the hands of criminals. You could only show kidnappings if they weren’t the major theme of the plot, the kidnapped victim was not a child, that the kidnappers did not benefit from ransoms and the like, and that they end up being punished.
The underlying morality is the law, and law enforcement, are above the criminals, they are better and more powerful. Whether that has ever actually been true is open for debate, but that’s what we’ve been told repeatedly through screen entertainment. Criminals will get their comeuppance, crime doesn’t pay, the cops are the good guys.
Post-Rampart, and for a lot of people from much earlier than that, the simplistic view of cops as the good guys has worn thin. There are still products that maintain the pretence – the Dick Wolf television universe encompassing Law and Order and a string of FBI-themed series is the best example. Now, cop shows often have to acknowledge that corruption exists, that bad cops exist. But even when the bad guys are cops, cops are the good guys who catch the bad guys, so let’s all just move on.
There are principally two ways these productions make this acknowledgement – limit the corrupt cops to bad apples, a tiny handful who do not represent police or law enforcement in general. The best way to do this is to have the bad cop or cops taken down by their own, who stand up against the evil when they see it. In reality, it’s often bystanders who film brutality, or community organisations bringing lawsuits, or other external pressures that result in bad cops being fired, and sometimes facing charges. The other way of deflecting is what many of these Rampart scandal films do – become morality plays about bad cops getting what they deserve, almost evoking some kind of universal karma whereby bad actions result in consequences for the bad actor.
Again, crime doesn’t pay, even if you’re a cop.
The other recurring message is that the answer to bad cops is good cops blowing the whistle, which isn’t what happened with Rampart. Ray Perez, without whom the dam doesn’t break, was corrupt as all hell. He wasn’t a good cop, I don’t even think he’s a good cop turned bad cop who then repented. He was more of a cop turned gangster who gave up others when he was caught, just like any common hoodlum.
The role of police and ex-police technical advisors and consultants on some of these movies should not be overlooked. Rampart, for example, had more technical advisors than its story had corrupt cops. What’s particularly revealing is that one of these consultants was Brian Liddy, one of the handful of cops who were accused by Perez, faced charges but were acquitted. It was Liddy who said that there was no Rampart scandal, it was all just Perez and Durden and everything else was stuff they made up.
In 2006, the LAPD essentially copyrighted themselves as a means of leveraging influence over Hollywood. You cannot use their logo, motto, uniforms and so on without their contracted permission. Having read a bunch of these contracts that means you cannot use footage of LAPD officers being racist, planting evidence, using excessive force and so on. When it comes to fictional or semi-fictional depictions they offer script review and consultancy, as well as technical advice and other support.
I believe that this move to formalise their relationship with the entertainment industry was in part a response to the harder-hitting Rampart-themed productions in the mid-2000s. By that point, some films were exploring the bigger picture of why this happened, and The Shield was gaining notoriety and a well-deserved reputation as one of the finest TV shows around. After that, there was a dilution or even reformation of the Rampart scandal, reducing it to a tiny handful of bad cops and even blaming the exposures for problems faced by the police department in the scandal’s wake.
This diluting and distancing effect does, at least in part, seem to be the result of the LAPD formalising its Hollywood office and the massive expansion of the use of police technical advisors by the entertainment industry. The majority of cop shows employ these kinds of consultants – either ex-police or sometimes even ex-military, because apparently doing a tour in Iraq qualifies you to advise on a show about police in Chicago.
This is part of a wider trend in pop culture copaganda – the NYPD have Law and Order on lockdown, it’s pretty much a PR vehicle for them at this point. But few scandals grabbed attention like Rampart, and had such an obvious and varied cultural impact. The stakes are higher when you’re dealing with real life, but if anything it is the lower-budget, lower class films that explored more of the truth about the Rampart Scandal, while the glossier productions tended to exploit the scandal for the purposes of drama and emotion, while avoiding the most serious questions.