Photographs by Joseph Rodríguez
“Police work is doing what people in the city want done,” Willie Williams, the Los Angeles Police Department chief, told me in 1994. Williams, the agency’s first Black chief, had been brought in from Philadelphia to make changes after LAPD officers beat Rodney King in 1991, the incident that ultimately led to the Los Angeles riots. A commission that year concluded that the LAPD was too quick to use excessive force and dangerously hostile to the community. The New York Times Magazine asked me and the photographer Joseph Rodríguez to embed with the police to see if Williams could actually reform the department.
For several months, Rodríguez and I went on ride-alongs with the police. Although this was a freelance gig, it became an obsession. Looking at these photographs now in Rodríguez’s new book of his work, which is also in an online exhibit at the Bronx Documentary Center, though, I was struck by how little has changed. The country as a whole is still dealing with the question of what, exactly, the role of the police should be in our society.
Rodríguez and I worked three precincts: Venice, 77th Street, and Rampart, a precinct at the edge of downtown with an especially high level of crime. We secured a remarkable degree of access, taking a deep dive into the LAPD. We were, by the end, so much a part of the scenery that we didn’t need permission to go on ride-alongs. We simply rolled up to Rampart and climbed into the back of a police car.
We were with the cops at scores of traffic stops and when they responded to murders and other deaths, domestic-violence calls, robberies, assaults, and rapes. We watched as they tried to engage more with the community. We witnessed a shoot-out between an aging florist with an old .22 handgun and a kid with a MAC-10 machine gun. We spent a few days with Rampart CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), the anti-gang unit, and accompanied it as it raided an abandoned apartment complex. The building had no water or power; feces and filth were everywhere. The cracked and emptied swimming pool in the center teemed with rats. People using drugs and those without homes huddled in the boarded-up rooms. (Four years later, Rampart CRASH would be at the center of a damaging scandal involving corruption and abuse.)
Cops live in a world that most people strive to avoid, full of stress, where almost every situation is confrontational. I saw how they so quickly filtered their interactions through an us-versus-them lens, the Thin Blue Line versus civilians whom many officers viewed as a pain in the ass. That’s the dynamic shown so vividly in Rodríguez’s photographs.
I see the strain in the officers’ faces in his pictures, the sheer strangeness and tension of their day-to-day. I see the thousand-yard stare they would assume when they were trying to dissociate from their current situation. I see compassion. And I see the disregard that some of the officers showed for those they were supposed to be helping.
Rodríguez captured the entire range of police officers we encountered. We met some who got a kick out of posing for the camera and others who couldn’t stand the sight of us; some who took their oath seriously and others who were what some politicians today call “bad apples.”
One summer night, we responded to a domestic-violence call in a crowded apartment complex. The drunk husband, who was still beating his wife when we arrived, came straight at me with a machete. One of the officers moved quickly, pushing the guy in the chest, which sent him flying on his back, and then handcuffing him. I’ve thought many times about that moment. The cop saved me, but his actions also stuck with me because a lesser officer might have shot the man.
On another weekend night at Rampart, a call came in: robbery in progress, man with a gun—the words that give cops free rein, almost a license to shoot. From all over the precinct, cars with sirens wailing zeroed in on a strip mall at Olympic and Alvarado. By then, most of the perpetrators had fled the scene, and the only people remaining were one suspect, who was cuffed, and the victim, a 19-year-old named Julien with bleached-blond hair and studs in his ears. He’d been robbed at gunpoint of all his cash, $56.
The amped-up cops switched off; they couldn’t have cared less about this man. Julien made the mistake of complaining about the officers’ attitude, and one turned on him. “Did I say you could move?” The officer taunted and humiliated Julien, asking him whether he had AIDS. The cop wrestled Julien to his knees and handcuffed him, as he wailed and flailed like a trapped animal. An officer, who was there with us, came up to me afterward and said, “That wasn’t right.”
Julien was screwed two ways: He was robbed, and then harassed by the police. Would the outcome be different today? I don’t think so. America has seen too often, especially in the past year, how police departments can default to the worst impulse of the worst officer and how flawed disciplinary and supervisory structures allow violent, even murderous, cop behavior to go unpunished.
By the end of our reporting, I knew that the LAPD would not change right away. The police officers wouldn’t let it happen. The precinct was operating too much according to its own culture. The officers were under enormous strain, yet wore that strain as a badge of pride. Williams was out as chief only two years after the story ran. In 1998, numerous Rampart CRASH officers were at the center of one of the LAPD’s biggest scandals. Some had been involved in shootings, hand in hand with gang members. One had orchestrated a bank robbery. Although we never witnessed any of these heinous acts—most took place years after our reporting—I wasn’t surprised. The CRASH unit, more than the other officers we reported on, followed its own set of rules.
The LAPD has a better reputation today, although it certainly still has problems. It also has more Latino, Asian, and female officers. But the proportion of Black officers, about 10 percent, is smaller than in the 1990s. Officers using force skew white, and that force is used on Black and Latino Angelenos utterly disproportionately, just as when Joe and I worked our story. I’ve thought of Williams’s statement about the police many times in the past few decades. What do people want the police to do? And who makes that choice, exactly? These tough questions are still in search of consensus.
Joseph Rodríguez is an award-winning photographer whose photos of the LAPD are now in an online exhibit at the Bronx Documentary Center. His most recent book is LAPD 1994, published by The Artist Edition.