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Frontline: LAPD Blues

Frontline docu "LAPD Blues" traces the roots of the monumental Rampart police fiasco, and ultimately questions whether the true scandal lies in the retention of corrupt cops or the expulsion of good ones. In a compelling hour, director Michael Kirk and writer-correspondent Peter J. Boyer find coherence in a wide-ranging tale.

Frontline docu “LAPD Blues” traces the roots of the monumental Rampart police fiasco, and ultimately questions whether the true scandal lies in the retention of corrupt cops or the expulsion of good ones. In a compelling hour, director Michael Kirk and writer-correspondent Peter J. Boyer find coherence in a wide-ranging tale. It’s an excellent compilation of facts, and a strong diagnosis of the current political and prosecutorial morass, but its analysis of the bigger issue it claims to address — how and why the LAPD has declined — seems superficial.

Boyer narrates the docu, which starts in earnest with the retelling of a 1997 incident where undercover white officer, Frank Lyga, interviewed here, shot and killed a black driver who had threatened him with a gun. It turned out, investigators reveal to the camera, that the driver, Kevin Gaines, was a police officer who was associated with Death Row Records king Suge Knight.

Death Row and the gangsta rap culture plays a very prominent role in this story. Some of the most incendiary songs are played, and in the interviews with police it’s very clear that the force associates rap with crime. While the accusations are made more directly in the press materials, the documentary does imply that the department wasn’t forceful enough in investigating this connection due to concern about being labeled as racist.

The docu goes on to cover an investigation into a bank robbery, where the perpetrator turned out to be another African-American cop, David Mack, who also had a history with Death Row, as well as with Gaines and the Bloods gang, and was likely involved in the slaying of rapper Biggie Smalls in revenge for the killing of Tupac Shakur.

By this time, of course, viewers may be asking what any of this has to do with the Rampart scandal and with the ultimate decision by the feds to take on oversight of the department. It would be a legitimate question.

Well-edited interviews with various investigators, as well as with Police Chief Bernard Parks, make this tale seem a bit more linear than it really is. That’s a positive, though, as the documentary moves in its second half to its most immediate topic, with the arrival on the scene of Mack’s friend and fellow cop Rafael Perez, who was discovered to be stealing cocaine from the evidence lock-up.

As told by one of the primary prosecutors in the case in an interview with Boyer, Perez would cut a deal and become the center of the Rampart storm.

But instead of shedding light on a potential gang infusion into the LAPD — which is what the prosecutors expected — Perez ended up throwing suspicion on the entire Rampart division, particularly its elite anti-gang unit. His accusations, filled with authentic details, have caused officials to throw out hundreds of convictions. The judge overseeing the case admits in the documentary that at first Perez’s allegations seemed to reveal a genuine, widespread problem, but he now feels that hasn’t proved to be the case. One cop in particular, Brian Liddy, is featured prominently in “LAPD Blues”; the producers clearly present him as someone unjustly tarnished.

This is really where “LAPD Blues” shines, and all the lead-up wasn’t totally necessary for it to make its case. The Rampart scandal comes across as a web of lies, perceptions, crimes, lawsuits, and political pressures so tangled that the only proper response seems to be a confused exasperation. We have accusations about bad cops aimed directly at a police department so fraught with baggage that all the worst possibilities seem believable. But at the same time the accuser is himself wholly untrustworthy with obvious motivation for lying. It’s easy to sympathize with the position of former district attorney Gil Garcetti, who talks on camera about the pressures he felt to bring charges when he didn’t feel there was sufficient evidence.

Even while it presents a clear-eyed vision of the current Rampart-related circumstances, “LAPD Blues” seems almost to participate in what it diagnoses as part of the underlying problem haunting the department. Although Kirk and Boyer conclude that the Rampart scandal has been severely exaggerated and that the LAPD’s problems are less wide-spread than they appear, this “Frontline” hour is packaged as a response to the question: “How did L.A.’s finest fall so far so fast?”. By promoting the film this way, “LAPD Blues” puts forth the image in all its advertising of a thoroughly corrupt force.

Frontline: LAPD Blues

PBS; Tues. May 15; 10 p.m.

Production: A WGBH Boston production. Executive producer, David Fanning. Director/producer, Michael Kirk; co-producer, Rick Young; writers, Michael Kirk, Peter J. Boyer; correspondent, Peter J. Boyer. 60 MIN.

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