Just as infamous murder suspect and police officer Chris Doran was scribbling his now famous manifesto against the Los Angeles Police Department, Hollywood was releasing Gangster Squad. About the LAPD’s battle against crime boss Mickey Cohen, the film is just the latest in La-LA land’s collection that put a sheen on the efficacy of the department’s iconic corruption.
Ironically enough, the real life “gangster squad” that the film was based on was formed by the LAPD in 1946 to preserve Los Angeles’ image as, in Gangster Squad author Paul Liberman’s own words, “a sun-washed Garden of Eden.” Unfortunately, it’s the exact same LAPD that has been—more than any other American city’s authorities—a scourge to the image of its home. A locked-in vicious cycle of LAPD mythologizing was maybe best captured in yesterday’s image of the LA Times homepage announcing the Dorner shootout alongside numerous banner ads for the “raw” LAPD TV drama Southland.
“No city’s image is more closely bound to its police department than Los Angeles to the LAPD,” John Buntin, author of L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, told brandchannel. Buntin’s book chronicles the LAPD of the Mickey Cohen “Gangster Squad” years and its transition to its Dragnet era and eventually the disaster of the Watts riots.[more]
New York and Chicago have their share, but Los Angeles is in a league of its own when it comes to the historical and toxic mix of police corruption and impropriety, the Hollywood display of which makes the Dorner case all the more attractive and believable.
The mixture of the LAPD’s capacity for storylines and its proximity to Hollywood make for an overexposed image. For every show that positively portrayed Los Angeles and its force like Dragnet, there are at least two others focused on its complex corruption like Gangster Squad. Of course, Gangster Squad is just the younger sibling of 1996’s tale of a play-by-their-own-rules LAPD: the David Lynch-directed Mulholland Falls.
To add to the irony is the fact that so many of pop culture’s depictions of the LAPD focus not, as is typical, on the heroism and bang-bang action of officers but on the complex, image-conscious politics inside the LAPD itself. The Lethal Weapon series, in the tradition of Dragnet, is about LAPD cops nabbing bad guys, but Training Day and Dark Blue (about the Rodney King-era LAPD) are about endemic corruption at the highest levels of the force and the leaders’ understanding that this is just how Los Angeles is. The recent film Rampart focused on the LAPD’s real-life “Rampart” scandal of the 1990s which revolved around an unchecked and lawless “CRASH” unit similar to the LAPD’s 1946 “gangster squad.”
With all of these themes reinforced again and again in American pop culture, is it any surprise that the world’s image of Los Angeles makes the Dorner case attractive as entertainment?
Even LAPD Chief Charlie Beck’s statement about the Dorner case hints to the longstanding real—and Hollywood—characterization of the LAPD as a force as worried about its own brand as it is about crime: “I am aware of the ghosts of the LAPD’s past and one of my biggest concerns is that they will be resurrected by Dorner’s allegations of racism within the Department.”
The Dorner catastrophe could not come at a worse time. The force was largely seen to have made recent image improvements that even Hollywood noticed. Last year’s End of Watch portrayed LAPD officers as complex, but ultimately admirable role models and heroes of the city.
Of the current LAPD, Buntin said, “More recently, a larger, better-led department has driven crime rates down to the point where Los Angeles is now one of the safest big cities in the country. This is no ordinary relationship. When it comes to L.A. and the LAPD, image and actuality are all part of the same feedback loop.”
As if the Dorner case needed one final, ironic nod to the L.A. image that Hollywood has helped create for the LAPD and its city, the final shootout in L.A. Confidential—the pulpy James Elroy noir turned Oscar-nominated Hollywood film—turns on corrupt LAPD detectives shooting it out at a cabin-like hotel in the woods with the truth later obscured to the public.