LASD Plays Itself
Alex Villanueva, Daryl Gates, and the police’s battle for narrative control.
Of Daryl Gates’s many contributions to society — helming Operation Hammer, presiding over the savage beating of Rodney King and the conflagration that followed, drawing a rhetorical juxtaposition between Black people and “normal” people, suggesting that drug users should be “taken out and shot” — the former LAPD chief’s brief movie career doesn’t rise to the top of the list. But as his IMDB page will attest, Gates had a sort of second life after his retirement from the force, playing characters based on himself in offerings such as 2008’s Street Kings and the television show Hunter.
The man even has a writer’s credit on a video game called “Police Quest: Open Season,” which invites players to “step behind the badge” and solve a series of ‘greatest hits’ crimes involving gangs, a cop killer, and a serial murderer. IMDB helpfully provides screen captures, so you can follow a pixelated detective as he tours a liquor store in a poor neighborhood, the LAPD homicide office, a house with white power symbols scrawled across its walls, and Elysian Park’s oddly located police academy — “a favorite of film makers,” as the LAPD’s website boasts.
Gates isn’t the first or last LA policeman to have confused movies for the real thing. His mentor, Chief Parker, exerted influence over the show Dragnet’s depiction of its cop characters, popularized the term “thin blue line,” and produced a short-lived show, duly called ‘The Thin Blue Line,’ that aimed to sell the LAPD back to the people of Los Angeles. Entire dissertations have been written on the chief’s mastery of public relations, which had a lot to do with how the Los Angeles Police Department became the LAPD: known, vaunted, reviled, and imitated the world over.
Los Angeles is a town where the business of myth-making has long been wrapped up in the myth itself, often at the expense of the real people living here. Plenty has been written about the endless proliferation of cop movies and TV shows that work to market the institution of policing to viewers, representing cops as righteous crusaders or even complex and absorbing antiheroes. But what about all of the other films? How do cops use movies — the same ones we all use to provide scripts for our lives and dramas — to lend meaning to their own work, and interpret the world in which that work happens, and the people it happens to?
Alex Villanueva, the sheriff of Los Angeles County, has lately seemed to reflexively invoke pop culture in order to justify his department’s excesses. During the summer of 2020, as the Reimagine LA coalition called for a relatively low sum of money to be diverted toward alternatives for incarceration, some of which would likely come out of the LASD budget, Villanueva responded with slippery-slope invocations of Mad Max. In October, he framed his department’s murder of a patient experiencing a psychiatric crisis in a hospital as a rational response to madness, saying it “was a scene out of The Shining with Jack Nicholson.” In February 2021, LA Times journalist Alene Tchekmedyian reported that the sheriff had begun construction on a personal helipad next to his domicile in La Habra Heights. This presumably taxpayer-funded indulgence tracks with Villanueva’s statement to the website Ballotpedia, during his election campaign, that the fictional character he most aspired to emulate was Batman.
The implication behind Villanueva’s “if you don’t want your streets to look like a scene from Mad Max…” threat was clear. Allocating 10% of LA County’s unrestricted general revenue towards alternatives to incarceration — a pittance of the County’s total budget — would start a chain reaction that could only result in gangs of out-of-control ruffians marauding across a polluted desert expanse. Online, some pointed outthat the sheriff’s apocalyptic vision didn’t sound so far away from present-day LA, and that his own department may have had something to do with such a reality.
On a deeper level, though, Villanueva’s framing suggested anxieties about a cityscape controlled by forces other than the police. (Whether this is a genuine concern or one part of a larger communications strategy designed to sell the LASD back to the civilians of Los Angeles, who pay for it, is hard to tell. The two may have become blurred at some point). The sheriff’s dark fantasy of a County with slightly fewer dollars for law enforcement feels in line with the litany of LASD social media posts that display contraband weapons. Look what was out there, they seem to say, you had no idea. This all ties neatly into the “thin blue line” thesis, which holds that police are the only thing stopping society from descending into a violent and disordered melee. Why wouldn’t you fund that at all costs?
It seems clear that the protests during the spring and summer of 2020 have only given weight to law enforcement officers’ impression of being under siege. This mentality, of course, tends to have deadly consequences for the people being policed. Nicholas Burgos, the psychiatric patient sheriff’s deputies shot at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in October, was not even the first patient to be killed by law enforcement at that very hospital.
Burgos died of his wounds on November 1, nearly a month after he was shot seven times. Villanueva’s immediate response was to compare the scene to a horror movie. The sheriff’s cruel Shining reference, uttered at a press conference following the shooting, takes the narrativizing contained within his Mad Max tweet a step further. Now the threats and justifications are no longer about the City in general — it’s about those living in it: what type of citizens they are, and what they deserve because of it. The chaos these police and deputies are holding back isn’t some nebulous force: it’s other people. And not just anyone: Black people, brown people, people living on the street, and the mentally ill.
In recent months, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department gangs, whose abuses have been well documented for years, floated back up into the news. The peculiar nomenclature of these gangs suggests that Villanueva is not alone amongst the LASD in his flair for the cinematic. As Simone Wilson wrote in LA Weekly, the department appears to be “living out a 1980s biker bromance flick” with their gang names. Hence “Vikings,” “Pirates,” “Executioners.” “Banditos,” one of whose members is reportedly referred to as “the Godfather.” (There is no extant gang called the “War Boys,” as far as I know.)
At the sheriff’s station in East LA, the home of the aforementioned Banditos, a seal with the words “Apache Station” is printed on the door — a reference to a 1948 western about a group of settlers who occupy an outpost in Apache territory. Fort Apache, which was directed by John Ford, is regarded by some as a film that represented its Native characters with a shred more humanity than your average Hollywood production at the time. Whoever lifted the name back in the 1970s may not have ascertained these nuances. A fourth grader with an internet connection could do a close reading of the design in question and come away with the same conclusions: The East LA sheriff’s station is a lookout post in enemy territory, and the enemies are Black and brown Angelenos. Least there be any doubt as to the ubiquity of this sentiment, the seal can apparently also be found on the building’s walls, floors, and even a series of commemorative pins and bumper stickers.
In 1965, James Baldwin reflected on his experience watching movies as a boy: “It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.” That realization would have a profound effect on Baldwin, and surely on the psyche of many Black and brown children growing up in an America that was always telling one type of story.
And that story could not have missed having an impact on the children for whom identification with the Gary Coopers of American television would have been seamless and absolute. A retired sheriff’s deputy told LAist in 2019 that the Apache Station seal came about after deputies started calling their station “Fort Apache” in the wake of the Chicano Moratorium protests, a series of anti-Vietnam war demonstrations led by Latinx activists in East LA in 1969 and 1970. At the time, nearly all of the sheriff’s deputies stationed in the area were white; most had probably grown up watching Gary Cooper on television. During the protests, one fired a round of tear gas into a bar where protestors and journalists were seeking shelter, hitting and killing the LA Times reporter Rubén Salazar.
So why movies? For Villanueva, it seems clear that film references function as powerful justifications because they have the ability to summon an atavistic fear or wonder that supplants rational thinking. His invocation of The Shining is meant to make you think about horror, to invoke the visceral terror you felt as the torrent of blood pours out of the elevator, or when Shelly Duvall peeks at her husband’s supposed chef d’oeuvre and discovers it’s just the same nonsense words repeated over and over again. It attempts, in other words, to mystify what is no more and no less than the violent and unnecessary killing of an innocent man.
At the end of the day, these devices function as a sort of diegetic booster: they enhance and elevate the brute, mundane, and deeply compromised reality of policing to something, well, cinematic. Villanueva gets to think — or at least project an image — of himself as Batman; the deputies in East LA can conceive of themselves as erstwhile John Waynes, bravely defending themselves against a hostile local population.
Villanueva’s rhetoric, and the self-styling of the gangs he has repeatedly downplayed, feels campy, dated, and distasteful, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for irrelevant. These references show us the world we live in — a world shaped utterly by the institutions of prison and policing. These systems really have criminalized the mentally ill. They have cleaved humanity into victims, villains, and the heroes who defend the former from the latter; they have designated whole neighborhoods as enemy territory and gone to war.
But there are other narratives, too: stories about qualified immunity, the unholy power of police unions, and the people in the crosshairs of these systems, who have fought back against them and worked to build something more just in their place. As these competing narratives begin to chip away at the official record, set so painstakingly by law enforcement and its enablers in the media and television industries, it seems likely that many cops will only cling tighter to their coping mechanisms: the stories they tell themselves in order to do their work.
In 2019, the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission tried to get the sheriff’s department to remove the Apache Station insignia. They failed. The seal had actually previously been banned by a former head sheriff; earlier that year, it was reinstated by the newly elected Alex Villanueva, never one to pass up a good reference.