Academic journal article Social Justice

Looking through the Gaps: A Critical Approach to the LAPD's Rampart Scandal

Academic journal article Social Justice

Looking through the Gaps: A Critical Approach to the LAPD's Rampart Scandal

Article excerpt

Introduction

THE LOS ANGELES POLICE DEPARTMENT'S (LAPD) RAMPART SCANDAL OF THE LATE-1990s involved allegations of outrageous misconduct, led to the overturning of over 100 criminal convictions and resulted in the firing or resignations of nearly 20 officers, several of whom were convicted of criminal charges (Burcham, 2001). The cost to the city of Los Angeles has been estimated to be as high as one billion dollars (Pomerantz, 2000), (1) and the LAPD is currently under federal oversight from the Department of Justice (pbs.org, 2007). The Rampart Scandal raises serious questions about the Los Angeles justice system at many levels. In light of recent allegations of brutality by the LAPD, (2) it is important to understand what happened in Rampart in the 1990s. Unfortunately, no entity has systematically investigated the alleged misconduct at the heart of the Rampart Scandal (although the Los Angeles District Attorney's office has investigated a few allegations). Instead, justice system investigators have analyzed the LAPD organization in an attempt to discover organizational problems that may have contributed to a context for misconduct. These efforts address only a few incidents and leave open questions about the type, frequency, and causes of misconduct in the LAPD.

In this vacuum of knowledge, the LAPD developed a version of the story suggesting that a very small group of Black and Hispanic officers were responsible for all of the misconduct (LAPD, 2000). This familiar "bad apples" framing contradicted whistleblower Rafael Perez's (3) version of the story, which described widespread misconduct. Perez claimed that a large number of officers were "in the loop," meaning they regularly planted evidence, manufactured probable cause, beat citizens, and generally abused citizens' due-process rights.

Which version of the story is correct? It is impossible to say because neither version can be confirmed with publicly available information. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that there are elements of truth in both versions of the story. It seems clear that something like a "loop" exists within the LAPD, (4) and it is obvious that Rafael Perez, and at least a few of his officer friends, were "bad apples."

What are we to make of this explanatory stalemate? Considering the LAPD's history of scandals, and the failure of previous reforms to prevent misconduct, it might make sense to try to develop some ideas that go beyond the "bad apples" or the "rotten barrel." My goal is to suggest critical lines of inquiry that have been ignored by official investigators and media commentators so far. Specifically, I hope to draw attention away from individualist or organizational approaches to the LAPD's troubles, and toward an approach attending to the justice system institution. Specifically, I propose two alternative causal factors: (1) the ideological "war on crime," and (2) the privileged position of police narratives in criminal trials. These factors operate both within and outside the police organization, and illuminate the influence of racist and essentialist ideological discourse on the patterns and practices of justice system organizations and the individuals who constitute them. Police misconduct influenced by these factors cannot be addressed through organizational reforms unless those reforms reflect larger-scale changes in discourses about the justice system institution.

One way to discover factors such as "the war on crime" and "privileged police narratives" is to look for their absence in official analyses and media representations of the scandal. This method seems counter-intuitive--"looking for an absence"-but if we theoretically contextualize the roles and apparatuses that produce the mainstream discourse on Rampart, we can see how ideology operates to foreground individual (and to a lesser extent, organizational) level analyses at the expense of institutional-level analyses. This foregrounding is evident in the official and media representations that lay the blame for Rampart on the bad character of Rafael Perez and a few other Black and Hispanic officers. …

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