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Cops On the Screen and Off

The Deeper Drama of Law Enforcement


Late this past summer, the New York Police Department was devastated by charges of sickening brutality. Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, was sexually assaulted while in the custody of two officers. This outrage comes at a time when crime rates in New York have been plummeting and the credit has rightfully been flowing to the hard-working men in blue. However, in the wake of the Louima incident, cops all over the city have faced angry citizen protests.

Amidst this maelstrom in New York arrives "L.A. Confidential," a sumptuous bit of film noir set in 1950's Los Angeles. The movie features a cast of crime lords, dope dealers, tabloid photographers, wife-beaters, crooked cops, movie stars, and prostitutes. Navigating this menagerie of colorful filth are three police detectives, Bud White, Jack Vincennes, and Ed Exley. As we watch them attempt to solve a mysterious mass murder, we unexpectedly gain insight into the recent tragedy in Brooklyn.

"L.A. Confidential" opens with Bud White watching a drunken husband attack his wife. White approaches the house and proceeds to beat the drunk senseless. Next, we see Jack Vincennes dancing at a glitzy celebrity party with a beautiful girl, boasting of his movie star friends, followed by the presentation of Ed Exley, the by-the-book watch commander, manning the station and posing for a newspaper crew on hand to write a story. Only later do we learn that Exley is a conniving politician who is ever-ready to exploit the rules for his own career advancement.

These three cops are the backbone of "L.A. Confidential." Their jobs demand that they be mired in filth and degradation, and they have not escaped untarnished. White sees violence against women and turns to a brutal brand of justice. Vincennes busts celebrity drug users and comes to seek the spotlight himself. Exley is enamored with the established system and is seduced by the power that it wields. All three men have been infected by the underworld in which they must exist.

On the opposite coast and under the scrutiny of a less sympathetic audience, two Brooklyn cops have exhibited an affliction similar to that of their on-screen counterparts. The torture of Abner Louima was a deplorable act. But, if vitriolic outrage at the perpetrators is the only result of this incident, then we deny real officers the depth that we allow their fictional representations.

Edward Conlon, writing in the September 29 issue of The New Yorker, grants the Louima affair a proper inspection. Conlon compares the experience of the police officer to that of the soldier. He contends that just as the extraordinary demands of warfare can erode the character of good men, resulting in phenomenon like military atrocities, cops who work in increasingly war-like urban environments can find themselves similarly destroyed by their difficult task. Conlon writes, "Whether engaged in combat on the Trojan plain or in the jungles of Vietnam or on the streets of Brooklyn, those who traffic in violence, regardless of the justice of their cause, risk their hearts and minds as much as their lives."

While society does pay appropriate tribute to police officers who sacrifice their lives, Conlon points out that we are clearly deficient in our attention to the less obvious threats that every cop faces on a daily basis. Police are plagued with a suicide rate well above the national average, and the invisible damage to the psyche of people who must run towards mortal danger on a daily basis, under the restraint of a myriad of rules stacked against them, is immeasurable. These considerations do not excuse those who break under the pressure and resort to illegal cruelty, but they should inform our reaction to such episodes with a greater sensitivity to their complexities.

Midway through the movie "L.A. Confidential," the three central characters recognize that they have lost their way as police officers. Predictably, the magic of the movies affords them opportunity at salvation. Life is less forgiving. The two cops charged with the assault of Abner Louima have perpetrated an act of evil and will justly go to jail. What few people know is that just one week prior to the assault, the same two police officers heroically re-entered a collapsing building in order to save its inhabitants, despite orders to withdraw from the scene because their own lives were in danger. The tragedy of these two Brooklyn cops, models of both valour and depravity, is more poignant than anything the big-screen could offer. Unfortunately, the characters in the real life drama can expect no respite from the closing credits.

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